Michael Howard – 2005 Speech on Education


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, on 14th April 2005.

My driving ambition is to give people real opportunity – the opportunity to make a success of their life. And education is the key to all opportunity. I know.

I come from an ordinary family. My parents ran a clothes shop in Llanelli.

If the teenage Michael Howard were applying to Cambridge today, Gordon Brown would love me. My socio-economic background ticks every one of his politically correct boxes: the child of immigrants; from a small town in Wales; a family with modest means; educated in a State school. And of course, Gordon Brown would hate Tony Blair.

We didn’t have any special privileges. But we were lucky enough to live in a town with a first class state school. At Llanelli Grammar School, discipline was at a premium. Teachers were respected. We all learnt the basics. Ambition, excellence and hard work were encouraged.

It was the best start any child could have in life. Fifty years on, I want everyone to have that quality of education. And my goodness we really do have a long way to go.

Of course we know that in some schools, thanks to the commitment of inspired heads and dedicated, hardworking teachers, standards are rising. But despite all the millions of pounds that have been spent, one in three children still leave primary school unable to write properly.

Lack of discipline is a real and growing problem. And the whole system lacks ambition. A pass grade for a Maths GCSE is now as low as 16 per cent. You get four out of five questions wrong and you still pass.

When I travel round the country, perhaps the most heartbreaking sight I see is the children who’ve dropped out of school. Youngsters going off the rails – each of them a story of lost opportunity, but also a warning of the kind of country Britain will become if we don’t change direction.

Let’s be clear – the quality of Britain’s education system today, will determine our success as a society tomorrow.

Conservatives will give youngsters the opportunity that comes from learning in well-disciplined schools – where the minority isn’t able to ruin the education of the majority.

I read stories of ill discipline in our schools with horror. I remember my teachers as people I respected.

If children don’t learn respect for authority in class they’re much less likely to respect others when they grow up.

So a Conservative Government will give head teachers back control over their schools.

They will have the power to expel disruptive pupils. I will not allow the minority to ruin the education of the majority.

Of course, a child’s future is far too precious simply to be written off if they are expelled from school. Today, too many expelled children simply fall out of education altogether, wasting their potential and, quite possibly, getting into crime.

So a Conservative government will invest heavily in these schools giving troubled youngsters get the help they deserve: learning the basics; a practical skill so that they can get a job when they leave; drug treatment if they need it.

School standards and behaviour in the classroom are closely linked. Bad behaviour is often born of frustration.

If a child leaves primary school unable to read or write or add up properly, how can we expect them to participate in class at secondary school?

If bright pupils are not intellectually challenged in the classroom, is it any wonder that they get bored and cause trouble?

And what about those youngsters who know they are not going to make it to university, but just want to learn a practical craft so they can get on in life? How depressing is it for them to have to stick to an inflexible academic curriculum?

There is overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that traditional teaching methods – phonics, arithmetic, times tables – are the most effective means of teaching children to read, write and add up.

So a Conservative Government will ensure that teachers are trained in traditional, proven teaching methods like phonics.

Phonics is the best way to teach children how to read and write. This is important for all children – but it is particularly important for those whose first language is not English.

A common language is the most obvious binding element in any society. Without it, it is much harder for people to be active members of the community.

It’s important that people who make their home here learn the language of our nation. Of course people may choose to carry on speaking their family tongue at home – that must be a matter for them. But they do need to learn English properly too.

Schools should challenge and stretch the brightest – rewarding excellence and ambition. The “all must have prizes” mentality has undermined education standards.

A Conservative Government will, in its first month, start a top to bottom review of the national curriculum.

We’ll slim it down so teachers don’t have so much paperwork.

We’ll review tests, GCSEs and A Levels to restore public confidence in our education system.

And we’ll root out political correctness, replacing it with the building blocks of knowledge that are essential to give every child their birthright: a decent education.

That review will be carried out by Chris Woodhead – that indefatigable champion of higher standards and less political correctness.

People will face a clear choice at the next election: schools with good discipline and high standards with the Conservatives or schools with poor discipline and falling standards under Mr. Blair or the Liberal Democrats.