National Grammar Schools Association
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Keynote Speech by the Rt Hon Michael Howard MP
to the NGSA Conference

Thank you very much for asking me to speak to you today.

I am particularly pleased to be talking to this audience, as I am the product of a grammar school education. I am very proud of that fact.

I went to Llanelli Grammar School, a school that was very much part of our community. It took boys from every walk of life, and gave us all a huge range of opportunities. It was certainly not a case of money or resources. It was about an educational ethos. There was a fundamental belief among the teachers that every pupil was capable of achieving their best.

Many of us went on the best universities in the land. Many of us were the first in our families to go to University. We owed that opportunity to the schools which helped us fulfil our potential. That is the secret of the success of good schools, and so often it is grammar schools that have led the way.

The 164 remaining grammar schools in England today represent that enduring excellence in our state education system.

By every measure, grammar schools out perform all other schools - maintained, specialist, independent or faith.

Even today, pupils at grammar schools get better GCSE results and achieve more “added value”, to use contemporary education jargon.

In 2003, 97.5% of your pupils achieved 5 or more GCSEs from grades A* to C, as against a national average of just under 53%.

According to the performance tables published at the end of last year, 44 out of 49 of the best performing schools which “added value” to their pupils’ attainment levels at Key Stage Three were grammar schools.

With figures like these, it is no wonder that in the last decade there has been an increase of more than a third in the number of pupils going to grammar schools.

That’s almost 40,000 more pupils, representing the equivalent of almost 50 new grammar schools. You now educate almost one in 20 of the nation’s children.

That is a track record of which you can rightly be immensely proud, and I congratulate all of you here today for these immense achievements, particularly as much of this has taken place in the face of sustained hostility from the Labour government.

Labour’s hostility has been something that you have always had to face.

One of my first political memories was, as a teenager, going along to an election meeting in Llanelli. It was addressed by the town’s MP, a great man of his day, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. I asked him why the Labour Party was proposing to abolish grammar schools - including my own. He said that they weren’t going to abolish grammar schools. They were going to make all schools grammar schools. Which perhaps goes to show that political spin has a very long history.

It was a canard that Harold Wilson used to peddle, even when his Education Secretary, Tony Crosland, was vowing to destroy every grammar school in the land.

Today, despite the fact that 116 Labour MPs benefited from a grammar school education, Labour remains ideologically blinkered about the contribution grammar schools make to our education system.

When Labour were elected in 1997 they chose a different tactic to one they had used previously. Instead of a direct assault, they sought to abolish grammar schools by stealth. They put in place legislation that would allow parents to hold ballots on the future of grammar schools in their area.

A few campaigns have been started. Not one has succeeded. But they have cost a great deal of money - almost £2 million - money that could have been spent on our children’s education rather than an ideological frolic.

And those who want to destroy grammar schools don’t give up simply because parents disagree. In Gloucestershire, the County Council, controlled by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, is intent on closing at least one – and possibly three – of the County’s excellent grammar schools. The school most under threat, The Crypt, which I visited just a couple of weeks ago, has survived every government reorganisation since 1539. What a tragedy if we were to lose it now.

In Northern Ireland, Labour’s hatred of grammar schools can be seen most starkly. Grammar schools there educate almost half the children in the Province, yet Labour are committed to making it unlawful to select pupils on the grounds of academic ability. No matter that the public in Northern Ireland want to keep their grammar schools. No matter that standards would fall. Labour want to get rid of them, and that’s that. If the Conservatives are in charge after the next election, we will not implement this plan.

All of you in this room today, the heads of grammar schools all over the country, face this constant struggle for survival under Labour. Your only crime seems to be the delivery of excellence in education, the sort of superb schooling that every parent wants for their child.

I make you this promise today. Under the Conservatives, grammar schools will survive and thrive.

Let me outline some of the immediate changes in education policy that the next Conservative government would make.

First, discipline in the classroom. The breakdown of discipline has become a major problem in all schools and it is one that has to be tackled head on. A recent opinion poll shows that seven out of ten people think that truancy and poor discipline in schools has got worse in the last few years, and they are right.

Tragically, children played truant a million times last year. According to one teacher union, there is an attack on a teacher in our schools every seven minutes. In fact, the number of assaults on teachers has increased five-fold since 1998. Yet, because of Government rules restricting head teachers’ ability to exclude pupils, exclusions from schools are down by almost a quarter. If this had been the result of an improvement in discipline it would be welcome. But, as the figures I have cited above show, that has obviously not been the case.

No-one can learn - and few can teach - in an atmosphere where shouting, loutishness and actual or threatened violence prevail. In many schools a disruptive minority have been allowed to hold back the majority who are eager to make progress.

So our first priority will be to restore to teachers unambiguous control over the classroom. Heads must have the final say over exclusions. There is nothing more damaging for school morale and discipline than when a pupil who has been excluded is let back into a school on appeal. The authority of the head is destroyed. The morale of teachers is ruined. Other pupils feel let down and afraid. And the pupil who has been re-admitted feels untouchable. That is wrong. That is a situation that has to stop and a Conservative Government will stop it.

Schools should also be allowed to offer legally-enforceable, tough home-school contracts, allowing schools to set minimum standards of acceptable discipline and attendance, as well as setting out the ethos of the school, to stop the problem getting completely out of hand.

The second issue of major concern is the huge increase in regulation. We want to set you free from many of the central targets imposed by Government.

Let me illustrate the scale of the problem. Last year, the DfES, Ofsted and the QCA sent 2,280 pages of regulatory paperwork to maintained schools. This represents 12 pages of paperwork landing on head teachers’ desks each day of the school year. To organise a school trip, a head teacher must now consult 204 pages of regulations and guidance. Schools now have to meet 207 external targets, and there are 307 criteria for LEA education delivery plans.

All this has a huge impact on day-to-day life in our schools. The time spent dealing with the consultations, the monitoring, the reporting and the enforcement of the guidance requires additional administrative staff if it is not to distract intolerably from the educational and pastoral work of the teaching staff. No doubt, this is part of what accounts for the fact that, of 88,000 additional public servants appointed in education between June 2002 and June 2003, only 4,000 were teachers.

Not surprisingly, the growth of regulation is something that teachers put at the top of their list of complaints. So we have to reverse this trend.

We will create a bonfire of national targets, and allow schools to set their own priorities. We will ensure that much more funding reaches schools on the front line. Some of the extra money put in by the Government has indeed reached the classroom. But much of it has gone in hiring new administrators, inspectors and bureaucrats in Whitehall and local authorities instead of being made available to spend by schools on the priorities the schools themselves would set. In fact, for every pound of taxpayers’ money, there is evidence that the Government is delivering between 15 and 20% less than we were in 1997.

We want to make the funding system far more simple. There are far too many sources of funding, often ring-fenced, all representing different streams of bureaucracy and accountability. Since the introduction of the Standards Fund there have been a total of 118 different funding streams made available to schools. This places a huge burden on schools. It diverts their attention from the things we want them to do. It means they have to spend their time working out which of these streams is most likely to get them money and how best to frame their application, when they should be concentrating on teaching.

We will also look closely at vocational education. There is no doubt at all that many children are forced to stay on at school, studying subjects that are completely inappropriate for them and for which they are not suited. We cautiously welcomed a number of aspects of the Tomlinson Review. The proposed reduction in coursework is a welcome development because that is likely to reduce teacher workload and increase the credibility of the process.

We also welcome the idea of having separate, independently assessed measurements of literacy and numeracy, although having better means of measuring this problem does not address the continuing problem of basic skills.

We will study closely the proposed diploma system. We have noted very carefully the remarks of your Association in this regard. I agree with you that it is vital that we ensure that outstanding achievement continues to be recognised in the exam system.

Our overall view is straightforward. The pursuit of excellence in all its forms – academic, vocational, sporting, musical, charitable – should be the aim of every part of our education system. Few can excel at everything, but no-one should be condemned to an expectation of mediocrity or underperformance across the board.

Schools should be free to specialise. Mixed ability teaching should be the exception, not the norm, in classroom teaching.

Literacy and numeracy should be bedrock skills for all, and exams made more rigorous – never again must we hear from employers that even some school-leavers with A-grades in GCSE maths have functional innumeracy.

So there are immense challenges ahead. There is no doubt that teachers do a very difficult job under an immense amount of pressure. But parents are crucial to the process as well. That is why we have set out in outline our proposals for more choice in education, called The Right to Choose. We will be setting out the policy in greater detail in a few weeks’ time. Our proposals will ensure that new providers will find it easier to come in and establish the sort of schools that parents want to send their children to.

Parental choice will be the overriding factor in keeping a school open. By giving parents the ability to exercise control over their children’s education, and by making it easier for popular and successful schools to expand - even to take over neighbouring schools - we will give opportunities to the grammar school sector and to thousands of children.

With your track record, you will not only survive, you will flourish. You will be able to take over less successful schools, if it becomes clear that there is pent up demand for your services. You will be able to raise money for expansion and attract as many pupils as you see fit.

I hope you are as excited as I am about our proposals, and that you will help shape them in the coming months.

The future of our education system lies in the need to remove, as far as possible, the baleful influence of politicians. Never again should a politician, driven by ideology, be able to wipe out an entire school structure. Schools should succeed and fail on one basis alone – the quality of the education that they give our children.

The Conservatives believe in freedom, and that freedom will extend to freeing schools from red tape, interference and instructions from the centre. Only then will excellence thrive, and the pursuit and reward of excellence no longer be a cause of embarrassment or regret. It will be the centrepiece of our entire education agenda. It will be at the heart of the approach of the next Conservative Government.

17June 2004