Michael Gove – 2012 Speech at FASNA Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, at the FASNA Conference on 5 July 2012.

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

May I start by wishing FASNA my congratulations on your 20th birthday?

I’m delighted to have the opportunity today to pay tribute to this organisation, and to wish you well for the next twenty years.

FASNA was established by educationalists who wanted to take charge of their own destiny.

And when you came together it was to affirm the vital importance of greater Freedom and Autonomy for schools as the key to raising standards.

When FASNA was set up, those principles needed to be proclaimed, needed to be fought for, needed friends.

The liberating power of greater autonomy for great head teachers was not seen as the most powerful driver of higher standards – as we know it is today.

It was seen as a threat.

To vested interests. To local authorities. Trades Unions. And to the politicians and academics whose reputations were invested in the unreformed status quo.

And you were a threat.

Because you were the leaders of the nation’s best state schools. The results achieved by your students gave you the authority to speak out. You proved every day that children – whatever their background – were capable of excellence in the right surroundings. And you therefore proved that many of those responsible for state education elsewhere had failed. Failed generations of children, who were condemned to a culture of low expectations.

In the last twenty years the education debate in this country has swung in different directions, with politicians who believed in the principles which have made your schools successful succeeded by, and in some cases thwarted by, those who were prisoners of old ideologies.

Autonomy drives excellence

But now – 20 years after FASNA’s establishment – we can see that you have been unambiguously on the winning side of the debate.

We know – from the international evidence so carefully assembled by independent organisations such as the OECD – that freedom and autonomy for school leaders is the key to successful education systems.

We know – from the amazing achievements of those schools which embraced autonomy early, from voluntary aided schools, trust and foundation schools, CTCs and academies – that freedom has driven standards up.

We know – from the subsequent embrace of academy freedoms by more than half the nation’s secondary heads – that the attractions of autonomy are now clear to leaders responsible for educating more than half the nation’s children.

And there is also now, happily, a firm political consensus among the politicians who matter – Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, Nick Clegg and David Laws, David Cameron and George Osborne – that greater freedom and autonomy for school leaders is the route to genuine and lasting school reform.

We have – thanks to FASNA – come a very long way.

And today I’d like to salute the people who made that possible

All of you in this room. And, in particular, Helen Hyde, Tom Clark, Joan Binder and George Phipson.

Thank you for everything you’ve done.

Accelerating change for the better

It’s because we in the Coalition Government know that greater freedom for great leaders is a proven route to excellence that we’ve wanted to spread the gospel more widely.

That’s why we have driven the expansion of the academies programme at such speed.

When we took office, there were just 203 academies – now there are nearly two thousand. Teaching over one and a quarter million children – and more are applying every day.

This milestone matters because more and more children are being educated in schools oriented towards success.

With greater freedom has come a broader shouldering of responsibility.

Outstanding schools like yours which have converted to academy status have been required to help schools in greater need.

This has helped to give children in the most disadvantaged circumstances – those most in need – the most damaged victims of the failed ideologies of the past – access at last to a culture of excellence.

And just as school leaders and teachers have used academy freedoms to help those most in need, so school leaders and teachers have used the new freedoms created to establish wholly new schools in areas of disadvantage and deprivation.

Free schools – freeing teachers to lead and freeing children from ignorance
Until this Government was formed, idealistic teachers couldn’t set up schools explicitly designed to help those most in need.

If you were a professional doctor committed to helping the disadvantaged, you could establish a community GP practice in a challenging area. If you were a professional solicitor determined to provide access to justice for the poorest, you could set up a community law centre in a disadvantaged borough.

But if you were a professional teacher who wanted to bring your skills and expertise to help the poorest, you couldn’t set up a community school for children in need.

Well, now – thanks to the free school reforms championed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg – these schools are being set up.

Patricia Sowter – a headteacher ranked outstanding by Ofsted – has set up two new primaries in Edmonton, and has plans to establish a ground-breaking secondary as well.

Greg Martin – a headteacher ranked outstanding by Ofsted – runs an amazing primary in Brixton and is opening a state secondary boarding school for students from Lambeth.

Peter Hyman – a former aide to Tony Blair turned outstanding assistant head – is opening an innovative new school designed to build confidence and raise educational standards for the poorest children in Newham.

Just down the road teachers from the state secondary Kingsford – and independent schools such as Eton and Brighton College – are setting up a sixth form free school for gifted and talented children.

In Bedford another great teacher – Mark Lehain – is trying to do just the same.

Supporting teachers to do even better
I know teachers sometimes get a bad press – isolated bad apples that pop up in the newspapers, odd GTC cases, bizarre NUT conference speakers embracing Trotskyism when even the Communist party of Vietnam operates a market economy…

But the teachers I’ve mentioned – like everyone in this hall, and the hundreds of thousands who do such a brilliant job every day – deserve better than to be associated with those individuals.

When the OECD records that we have – overall – among the best headteachers in the world we should celebrate that. And that is what I am here to do, by translating words into actions.

Not least by seeking to give you more freedom – and autonomy – to push standards even higher.

As well as extending academy freedoms as widely as possible, we have tried to cut back bureaucracy as much as possible.

Exempting outstanding schools from routine Ofsted inspections.

Replacing more than 20 Ofsted judgements with just four.

Removing the requirement to fill Ofsted’s sprawling self-evaluation form.

Cutting the guidance on behaviour policy from 600 pages to just 50.

Reducing the admissions and appeals codes from 138 pages to less than half.

And giving all schools the freedom to expand – by increasing their Planned Admissions Number – without any bureaucratic obstacles.

As well as managing their own in-year admissions.

On discipline, we’ve given heads and teachers new search powers.

Abolished the rule requiring teachers to give 24 hours’ notice of detention.

Removed the ability of outside bodies to demand the reinstatement of excluded pupils.

And ended the need to record every exercise of physical restraint when poor behaviour needs to be managed.

There is of course more – much more – to do.

The need for fairer funding

On funding – we need further reform and simplification.

We need to move to a full fair national funding formula where each school receives a set, transparent sum for each pupil – and the pupil premium on top for the poorest pupils – and local authorities only receive money for services that schools themselves decide that they need to buy.

We need to move in that direction as quickly – but also as carefully – as possible, to avoid causing unnecessary instability en route.

That is why we are introducing the first stage of funding reforms which will provide a minimum funding guarantee for all existing schools but which also require schools to be funded in a way which sees money go to them first, not the local authority – and which allows schools to work together through the Schools Forum to take account of specific local needs but where the operation of the Schools Forum will be scrutinised from the centre to prevent individual good schools losing out.

I know that there are still issues to be ironed out as we move further on funding reform – but the Government’s sense of direction is clear – and with your help, I hope we can get there as soon as possible.

The need for better governance

And there is another area where I need to drive reform faster.


Good schools need good governors. And we have thousands of reasons to be grateful to those who give up so much time to help support school leaders in the work they do.

It’s because governance matters so much that the difference between good and bad governance matters so much.

We all know what good governance looks like.

Smaller governing bodies, where people are there because they have a skill, not because they represent some political constituency. They concentrate on the essentials such as leadership, standards, teaching and behaviour. Their meetings are brief and focused; the papers they need to read are short, fact-packed and prepared in a timely way; they challenge the school leadership on results, and hold the leadership and themselves responsible for securing higher standards year on year – every year.

And, all too sadly, we also know what bad governance looks like.

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

We cannot have a 21st century education system with governance structures designed to suit 19th century parochial church councils.

Ofsted, in their new inspection framework, will now be asking searching questions on governance – including assessing how well governors hold the head and senior leader to account.

When it is our children’s future at stake, we cannot afford the archaic amateurism of old-fashioned committee protocols – we have to be more professional.

Professionalism at every level

Reinforcing a commitment to professionalism at every level is what our reform programme has been about.

Giving school leaders greater freedom is a recognition that they take professional pride in driving up standards every year and they want to help as many children as possible enjoy greater opportunities.

The idealistic way in which heads have risen to the challenges we have set on higher standards, the enthusiasm they have shown for academy freedoms, the transparent sense of moral purpose the best have shown in helping those most in need, have contributed to an ever increasing level of respect for those school leaders who do make a difference.

People like all of you in this room.

And your success in shaping your own futures – and enhancing the reputation of your profession – is an inspiration to me in my work.

I am determined to do everything possible to enhance the professional status of teaching.

That is why I have taken the advice of Sir Michael Barber, and all those who have studied those jurisdictions where teaching deservedly enjoys high status.

I have raised the bar on entry to the profession: demanding better degrees of trainees to send a signal that – like law and medicine – education is a demanding vocation which requires high quality professionals.

I have insisted that we have stricter literacy and numeracy tests on entry to the profession.

I have demanded changes to the funding of teacher training so we secure the closure of those teacher training institutions which are under-performing, and guarantee more graduates train in outstanding schools – like yours – where they can learn from the best.

I have expanded elite routes into the classroom – tripling the size of Teach First and providing new bursaries for first-class maths and science graduates.

I have made more money available for those trainees whose idealism inclines them to teach in schools with the greatest number of disadvantaged pupils.

I have established a new set of Teacher Standards which embody a higher level of professional ambition.

I have instituted a new system of scholarships for teachers who want to undertake research as part of their professional development.

And I have affirmed that teachers – like university academics – are integral to the intellectual life of this nation, guardians of the life of the mind.

Whenever there has been an opportunity for me to appoint a figure to shape educational policy I have tried to ask teachers to lead.

A teacher led our review into teaching standards.

Teachers – dozens of them – helped us develop our new draft primary national curriculum.

A teacher is chief inspector. And another teacher is Chair of Ofsted.

A teacher will lead the nation’s teacher training body – the Teaching Agency.

A teacher is in charge of our academy policy – as Schools Commissioner.

Teachers are in charge of our school improvement effort – through the sponsored academy programme and the National Leaders of Education programme.

Teachers are in charge of training and developing talent in the profession – through the new generation of 200 Teaching Schools and the new opportunities offered by the School Direct programme.

Now there is more – much more – we can do.

We need to reform pay and conditions so teachers are treated and rewarded as autonomous professionals of great creativity and idealism – not homogenized units of production in something rather patronisingly called “the workforce”.

We need to ensure the individual practice of brilliant teachers – and great schools – is better recognised and celebrated by Ofsted and Government.

I am aware that some in the profession think teaching needs that support because it is not valued as it should be by the public.

I understand those concerns, but I am not sure that they are entirely correct.

Evidence from the Teaching Agency has shown that – among graduates – the respect in which the teaching profession is held has risen since 2010.

I believe that is not because of anything I’ve said or done, but because teaching has got better – we have a better generation of teachers and leaders in our schools than ever before.

But some argue that perceptions of teaching have been damaged by the stress I – and the Chief Inspector – have placed on excellence.

I think that analysis is profoundly misconceived.

As does the man who knows more about education than anyone on the globe.

Andreas Schleicher is the OECD official responsible for the international comparisons – PISA – which allow us to identify the best and worst education systems in the world.

He, like me, believes the essence of a good education system is good teaching.

And he, like me, wants to see the respect in which teachers are held increase. But as he recently pointed out…

“The general perception is that the social status of teachers is determined by how much society respects the teaching profession. The OECD data, however, suggests the reverse: it is the nature of the profession that is creating the teachers’ image.”

In other words, the status and prestige of the teaching profession depends not on what politicians or newspapers or other so-called opinion-formers say – but on what teachers do.

The public treat most media and political commentary with the respect it deserves – and prefer, rightly, to judge teachers on what they see with their own eyes.

Increasingly they are seeing great school leaders driving up standards, a culture of excellence and high aspirations being driven by more and more people engaged in education, and schools once thought unimprovable becoming world-beaters.

Those changes – driven by you – are changing perceptions for the better.

But there are factors acting as a drag on that change for the better.

Actions by teachers – and some of those who claim to speak for the profession – which go against the grain of higher aspirations for all.

Teaching union leaders who deny there is any such thing as a bad teacher who needs to go – and so hold back freedom and recognition for those good teachers who deserve our praise and promotion.

Teaching union leaders who oppose the extra work involved in getting every child to read fluently at 6.

Subject association leaders – like the man in charge of the National Association for Teaching English – who argue that it is oppressive to teach children grammar.

Professional leaders – in the unions and elsewhere – who object to being held to account objectively for getting children to learn.

Union leaders who object to poor schools getting help from those with a track record of excellence because it offends their ideology.

Union leaders whose conferences discuss the terms, conditions, pay, pensions, party politics and ideological crusades of their members – but not the curriculum, standards, support and help which is right for children.

This focus does not do justice to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are working hard every day on school improvement, on innovative new practice; on raising standards and helping children.

It is not the stuff of true professional leadership. It doesn’t represent a profession which wants to aim higher.

In particular, professional associations need to connect with the public’s very real concerns about standards. Three in five members of the public say the standards expected of pupils in British schools are not yet high enough – half of all parents of school-age children.

Yet while we look to the teaching profession to contribute to the debate on how to drive up standards, partisan, political union leaders concentrate the media spotlight relentlessly on differences, rather than agreement – on problems with the past, rather than plans for the future.

The message the country hears is that the unions care far more about wranglings between adults than about improvements for children.

The Times Educational Supplement – hardly a publication of the radical right – spoke for many in the profession (and among the wider public) recently, when it sharply criticized the behaviour of some union leaders during conference season.

As one editorial said, “It would be the stuff of Ealing comedies if it weren’t so tragic. The profession deserves serious representation and all it gets is this nonsense.”

Another editorial cited a contributor on the TES web forums who wrote that the Easter weekend was “slightly embarrassing”. She wished the TV cameras would ‘give the conferences a miss so that she didn’t have to justify them to her friends and family’.

It’s because of that I want to see the focus shift – to the overwhelming majority of teachers doing a job they love in schools which are improving and where children are learning more and more.

And I have a specific challenge for my friends in the media. Our education system is changing at the moment – dramatically and, I believe, overwhelmingly for the better. Let’s hear more about the schools and teachers doing amazing things, not the dwindling number standing in the way of progress and marginalising themselves within the debate.

Let’s have more coverage of FASNA and its brilliantly innovative schools and less of the reactionary comments from those conservative voices still too prevalent in the union movement.

For my part – I will continue to praise the teachers and schools who are doing a great job – and I will try to do everything I can to support you in your drive for higher standards.

A culture of high expectations

And that lies behind my hopes for the curriculum and the exam system.

I want to see – at one and the same time – higher expectations of what our schools and children can achieve, but far greater flexibility for schools and teachers over how to get there.

We need to lift from teachers’ shoulders the burden of expectations from those in society who want them to be social workers, careers advisers, child psychiatrists, foster parents, casual labour for exam boards and human rights and equality monitors, so they can be liberated to concentrate on the thing which matters most – teaching. Introducing the next generation to the best that has been thought and written.

We know that the better educated children are, the more rigorous qualifications they have secured, the more knowledge they have acquired, the more learned they are – the better their lives will be.

They are less likely to fall pregnant too early, endure mental illness and depression, experience long-term unemployment, remain stuck in sub-standard housing, see their incomes decline relative to their neighbours and then see their children fail in turn.

That’s why I believe that the best personal, social, health and economic education anyone can received is a proper immersion in a rigorous curriculum which confers the qualifications employers value, colleges ask for, universities demand and the public respects.

That is why I am so glad that we’ve improved, through the work of Alison Wolf, the quality of our vocational offer. And that the English Baccalaureate has resulted in the numbers studying Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Foreign languages, History and Geography going up. More children studying the subjects which will get them good jobs and prestigious college places. More social mobility and greater equal opportunity. Through proper education.

And critical to extending opportunity further is yet further reform. We know the current curriculum says far too much about how to teach at the expense of what should be taught. Which is why we are stripping out unnecessary pedagogic detail and concentrating on the basics in our draft primary curriculum.

And it’s also why we are reforming the curriculum and qualifications in secondary schools.

There are good and bad things about the current examination system but I believe that its central fault is the manner in which it denies opportunity to so many students. It has reinforced the stratification and segregation of our education and social systems. It was a vale of tiers.

The first problem we faced was the number of students being steered towards qualifications of no, or indeed negative, value.

In 2004 a variety of so-called vocational qualifications were allowed to count in league tables as “equivalent” to one or more GCSEs. Some of the courses leading to those qualifications had merit. Most did not. They were not truly vocational because they were not respected by employers and did not lead to employment. Some had a negative value in the labour market because they marked out their bearer as an under-performer in the eyes of the school.

They were not genuinely “equivalent” because they did not lead to the opportunities GCSEs did. You need at least a B in GCSE in most circumstances to attempt A-level in most schools. Many of these qualifications were simple pass/fail exams, with a pass being awarded by a teacher on the basis of classroom assessment and not external testing, so sixth-forms and FE colleges would not consider them anything like adequate preparation for many of the courses they offered.

The distinction between equivalents and real GCSEs is not the only division holding children back. In English, maths and science as well as many other subjects, GCSEs are split between Foundation and Higher Tiers. These are two separate exams. Just like the old O-level and the old CSE.

If you sit the Foundation Tier Paper you cannot get higher than a C – just like the old CSE. Only if you sit the Higher Tier Paper can you get an A*, A or B. And since you need a B at GCSE to do A-level, sitting the Foundation Tier Paper effectively prevents you from doing academic study post-16. Just like the old CSE.

What is worse, some colleges will only accept Cs at GCSE if the candidate secured that grade in the Higher Tier paper. They don’t even consider a C in a Foundation paper to count in the same way.

The exam boards don’t publish how many students sit Foundation Papers and how many sit Higher Tier papers. Or where. So we do not know how many students are having their aspirations capped. Or where they are.

But we can be sure that a disproportionate number of those sitting Foundation Tier papers will be in weaker schools, around floor standard level, in poorer areas.

These students are also likely to be the candidates who suffer from another, deep, structural flaw in the current system. The race to the bottom.

The requirement we currently place on schools to ensure as many pupils as possible secure five GCSE passes at C or above has led many schools, especially weaker schools in poorer areas, to search out the easiest exams.

Exam boards, anxious to maintain, or increase, market share have pandered to that appetite. By arranging seminars in which they signal which questions will appear. Publishing study guides which reveal how mark schemes operate. Hollowing out the syllabus to provide the scantiest coverage of the curriculum consistent with being approved by regulations and asking simpler, shorter questions that do not test deep understanding. Even letting schools know in advance which scenes from plays will be examined.

The recent Education Select Committee report confirms what the Daily Telegraph investigation into exam board conduct last year revealed – these practices have driven down standards.

The whole country has been the loser as a result. Our slip down international league tables reflects the ever less demanding nature of the courses and qualifications pursued by our students. They are more poorly equipped to compete internationally, for college places and for jobs, because they lack the skills and knowledge expected of contemporaries in other nations. For those who rely most on state education to compensate for poverty at home – whether poverty of expectations or resources – this devaluation of exam standards is a further impoverishment of opportunity.

And what makes it worse is that the brightest students, in the most exclusive schools, are escaping the consequences of this process because they have been allowed to pursue more rigorous qualifications. An increasing number of independent schools are steering their students towards iGCSEs – especially in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science – because these qualifications are better preparation for further study and open more doors.

So, we can see that the GCSE is no longer a general certificate at all. It is being abandoned by the wealthiest, it restricts opportunities globally at a time when they are expanding, it is divided into two qualifications for core subjects, divides candidates into two tracks thereafter and has become an engine of lowering expectations.

The forgotten forty per cent

And of course the biggest problem of all with the GCSE is that forty per cent do not get even five grade C passes including English and Maths at 16. 16 per cent don’t even get a D in English. 22 per cent don’t secure a pass in Maths. And their chances of securing a grade C after 16 are vanishingly small. Only one in fifty do. These students – tens of thousands every year – are failed by the schools in which they study.

Of course some of them will secure some qualifications. There are certificates awarded to recognise what is judged by the current system to be basic literacy or numeracy. These foundation qualifications – or Level One qualifications, or key skills – are intended to acknowledge effort, progress and accomplishment at a very basic level. But employers, sadly, are rarely impressed by these qualifications. They consider a Maths or English GCSE to be the very least required of any prospective employee.

So when critics argue that any move away from the current system would create a new class of qualifications for those below GCSE level which won’t impress employers or colleges, they ignore the fact that they are describing the failed status quo we inherited.

I did not come into politics to defend the status quo – I came in to support greater freedom for those who wish to make our society stronger.

Like the people in this hall.

Behind your success has been the determination to expect more and more from more and more. To raise aspirations everywhere, for all students, at all times.

So the original floor standard for secondary schools – below which none should fall – was 20 per cent securing five good GCSE passes. This was then raised to 30 per cent, to 35 per cent, to 40 per cent for this year’s results, and we anticipate raising it further to at least 50 per cent by 2015.

We also introduced effective floor standards for primaries – expecting at least 60 per cent of children to reach basic levels in English and Maths.

There has been significant resistance to both interventions. We have been accused of penalising the disadvantaged by setting a standard which their schools cannot reach.

This is, of course, nonsense. Not only do many schools with exceptionally disadvantaged intakes – from Mossbourne to Burlington Danes – easily outstrip both floor standards and indeed national averages, it is also deeply unfair to disadvantaged students to say they should expect less from their schools.

Every time the bar has been raised in school standards – when we introduced floor standards, when a requirement was introduced to include English and Maths in the 5 GCSE measure, when the English Baccalaureate was introduced – the usual suspects have said that is unfair on poorer students. But what is unfair is having an expectation – which becomes an entitlement – for a minority of students which is not extended to all students.

Other countries expect more and more of their students – 80 per cent and rising – to secure qualifications at 16 which are more stretching than the GCSEs we can only get 60 per cent to a C. And those jurisdictions never give up on young people. They encourage and support the students who fail to get passes at 16 to secure them at 17 or 18, while we, until recently, left most of these students to drift.

I believe that we can only overcome the corrosive culture of low expectations which still persists in too many of our schools by setting a higher bar, with harder exams, for all students. It is only when we have a system where we expect for all children what we would expect for our own that we have a dynamic which drives up attainment for the very poorest. If we settle for a system where forty per cent fail, then we will all fall behind. Our whole society is impoverished.

If we presume that the only way to get more to pass these qualifications is to keep standards low then we will devalue those qualifications relative to other countries, we will restrict our young people’s opportunities, we will set a ceiling on their achievements, we will perpetuate the attitude that the poor can only climb so high. We will proclaim to our own citizens, and to other nations, our lack of ambition.

But if we do change our curriculum and exams system we can set a course of higher expectations for all – dramatic levelling up – which fulfils the highest hopes of the comprehensive ideal.

That is why I hope the journey we have both been on – of greater freedom and autonomy for schools driving up standards for all – will ensure that every child enjoys the high quality education which means they have the freedom to shape their own destiny in life – to become the authors of their own life story.