I'm delighted to be here opening the Bexley Business Academy today.
This is a moment of great pride for students, teachers, and all those who have created this academy from scratch in barely two and a half years. It is privilege to share it with you.
Let me pay a few special tributes:
* To David and Maureen Garrard, whose sponsorship, vision and dedication have driven this project forward so successfully.
* To Tom Widdows and his staff, for the progress they have made in their first year, starting to transform the ethos and results inherited from a school which was one of the weakest in London.
* To Norman Foster, who has truly designed a school of the future to inspire the next generation.
* And to Stanley Goodchild and Valerie Bragg, for their educational leadership of the academy project through their path-breaking company 3Es.
'3Es' apparently stands for 'education, education, education'. I've heard that phrase somewhere before, and am wondering whether they should be paying royalties.
But '3Es' could not be more appropriate, because this ??31m project symbolises so much that we are seeking to achieve across our education system nationwide through investment and reform - not just better facilities, but a wholly new and better way of delivering education, developing the potential and aspirations of each individual child. All the radical things about this academy - the independent sponsor; the business and enterprise specialism; the state-of-the-art facilities and use of IT; the reformed curriculum and ways of teaching and learning - none of these are ends in themselves. They are all means to an end - the goal of developing each individual pupil in a tailored way, whatever their background.
When I look at this school, and see the pupils, parents, teachers and those who have made it all happen, I know why I am in politics. This isn't just about new buildings and fresh paint. It's about a fresh way of doing things. It's about keeping the ideal of equality of opportunity that gave rise to comprehensive schooling, but changing radically the traditional comprehensive model to achieve that ideal.
It's also about being honest that for too long we tolerated failure, when every failure to educate a child properly is a blight on that child's life. Good education shouldn't depend on your class, colour, background or birth. It should be each child's start in life. Their chance to make the most of themselves. Once they have that chance it's up to them. But to deny them that chance is the greatest personal and social injustice imaginable.
The academies now opening are just one part of a fundamental change in Britain's comprehensive system. They are an extension of the specialist concept now accounting for half of all secondary schools in England. Taken together with greater flexibility in staffing, and the greater freedom for headteachers and governors to run their schools to deliver the best education they can, they are ending the 'one-size-fits-all' comprehensive system.
There is nothing standardised about this academy. Not its design; not its governing board; not its method of teaching; not its curriculum; not its facilities. It teaches children of all abilities but recognises that those abilities are different. It doesn't focus on children: it focuses on each child. That is where Britain's education system has to go.
There is real progress to celebrate. We have seen the best ever primary and secondary school results, including GCSEs and A-level. A record number are going on to university and further education.
Just as important - because nothing matters more than a good teacher - the number and quality of those going into teaching is rising steadily. This reflects not only better pay and recruitment incentives, but also the increasing attractiveness of a teaching profession once again seen in a positive light.
This year alone there is a 35% increase in the number of graduates who have accepted places to train to become maths teachers, with 14% more scientists, 26% more in design and technology and 10% more in modern languages. The excellent new Teach First initiative - a partnership between government and leading private sector employers - is bringing more high-achieving graduates into teaching in London secondary schools on two-year placements. In its first year alone Teach First has recruited 180 young graduates, and in this academy you have no fewer than seven of them.
I don't want to get into the debate about student finance today, but there is a striking fact: of those who get two or more A-levels, 9 out of 10 go on to university irrespective of class or school background or the cost of their studies. The key to expanding opportunity, at all levels of education, is more good schools getting good results.
To achieve this goal, we need to hold our nerve and not succumb to the cynicism which says that there is something deep-seated and cultural about poor public services in this country. We had a brilliant illustration of the problem yesterday. The OECD published a report on international educational standards. Our media almost universally reported this as gloom and doom. Britain, we were told, was 'plummeting in the international league', sinking in a generation from 13th to 22nd among developed countries in terms of the qualifications of school leavers because our schools were 'failing to keep pace with those in other countries'. All this was reported as present-day fact.
Only when you looked at the small print did you notice that these figures referred to the qualifications of the 25 to 34 year-old age group - and that even the youngest of those included in the OECD survey ended compulsory schooling nearly a decade ago. More recent studies - including by the OECD itself - show radical improvement. The major OECD study of contemporary secondary school standards shows Britain's 15 year-olds to be 8th out of 43 countries in reading, 9th in maths and 5th in science. Another recent study of ten year olds showed us third in the world behind Sweden and the Netherlands in terms of reading. Germany is now gripped by a national debate about inadequate school standards.
This is crucial to getting a balanced picture of what is happening. And that balanced picture is this. As a country, we did indeed have a chronic problem of low educational standards and under-investment in the post-war decades. I am not making a party political point here: this failure spanned Labour and Conservative governments alike, and did us immense social and economic harm.
To advance as a country we had to tackle it - focusing resolutely on standards. I recognise that the last government made a start, with important reforms such as the national curriculum and the introduction of the GCSE. But our diagnosis, as an incoming government in 1997, was that as a country we had to be bolder on both investment and reform, and that we had to put education at the heart of our governing mission - particularly the problem of under-investment and the long tail of under-achievers in our school system, concentrated in deprived communities.
This is precisely what we have done, in partnership with teachers, parents and all those who play a part in the success of our children. Where there has been success, we should celebrate it, not pretend that everything is still dreadful. And there has been a good deal of success.
This is one of 12 academies now open. A further 25 are at planning stage, and our ambition is for at least 50 academies within the next four years - 50 entirely new secondary schools, all in areas of poor educational performance, many of them replacing weak or failing schools.
Academies embody all we are seeking to achieve as a government, tackling social exclusion and transforming life prospects for the least advantaged in our society. My passionate belief is that educational success is the route to social justice - for each individual young person, and for our nation as a whole - and that there is nothing more important for us as a nation than to invest in new and better schools in areas which have been failed in the past.
In this you are an inspiration. This academy - and the investment it represents in people and facilities - could not be more focused on reducing social exclusion and extending opportunity and aspiration within a community which needs them desperately.
To those who fear radical change - and who claim we would be better off not tampering with the comprehensive schools we inherited from the 1960s - I say: come here to Thamesmead, visit the local community, hear about the failed school of the past, compare it with the Bexley Business Academy which is already becoming a beacon of hope and aspiration to the whole community, and see what a change for the better has taken place.
This is reform for a purpose, making Britain a fundamentally better and fairer society. The bigger the challenge to achieve social justice, the bolder the reforms needed to reach it - that is our guiding principle.
Our ambition is that every community in this country, whatever its social mix, should have schools of which they are similarly proud, giving every young person the best start in life. Through investment and reform - the ??4bn a year we are now investing in school buildings, the 15% real increase in new teachers' pay since 1997, but also the reform progressing alongside this investment - I believe this is now a realistic goal.
But none of us - teachers or government - believe that that we are at the end of the process of change. We all know that we need to continue reform to achieve the goal of a personalised school system which develops the potential of each young person to the full.
Central to reform is the specialist concept - that every school should have a centre of excellence in at least one area of the curriculum, driving change and improvement across the school as a whole. This academy marks another exciting departure in the specialist programme, launching business and enterprise as a new specialism with all its potential for motivating young people and enhancing the links between schools and employers.
Even a year or two ago, the specialist principle was controversial, despite the strong evidence from the existing specialist schools and the City Technology Colleges that it was highly successful, in all types of community.
But as the specialist concept becomes increasingly mainstream, it is increasingly accepted. In May 1997 there were only 182 specialist schools in the entire country. There are now nearly 1,500 - half of all secondary schools, thanks to rising numbers of schools meeting the necessary standard, and the combination of government funding and generous support from more than 500 sponsors which has raised ??100m over the life of the programme. I want to pay tribute today to all those sponsors, not only for their money but more importantly for their non-monetary commitment which has been a crucial part of the success of the specialist school movement. It is even more important to the success of academies, where the role of the sponsor is central to the entire enterprise.
But we are not stopping. We want to welcome many more sponsors ready to take on the challenge of academies and specialist schools. We want all schools which are ready to do so to take on a specialism.
Bexley is one of a number of specialist schools which can point to big recent improvements, on the back of outstanding leadership. Let me highlight the performance of a few other beacons of success in the Greater London, all of them in areas of social disadvantage:
* The Harris City Technology College has improved its five GCSE success rate from just 11% in 1990 to 92% this year. Much of this success is due to its outstanding headteacher Carol Bates and its inspired sponsors Philip and Pauline Harris.
* Sir John Cass Language College in Tower Hamlets has transformed its results from just 8% in 1995 to 80% this year. It was the most improved school in the country last year. It is one of the few secondary schools in Europe that teaches Mandarin Chinese. Again, its success is due to the outstanding leadership of its headteacher, Haydon Evans and the marvelous support of its sponsors HSBC and the Sir John Cass Foundation.
* The St Marylebone School of the Performing Arts in Westminster has improved its results from 33% in 1994 to 93% this summer under the outstanding leadership of Elizabeth Phillips with strong support from its sponsor British Airways.
* Barking Abbey Sports College has improved its results from 39% in 1997 to 60% in 2003 under the leadership of its headteacher Mark Lloyd and its main sponsor Sir John Beckwith. As one of the first Sports Colleges it has played a lead role in improving whole school performance through the teaching of sport.
There are many other schools with similar stories to tell. It is now abundantly clear that rapid school improvement is not a question of heroic exceptionalism: it comes from good team leadership, close attention to improvements in teaching and learning, and the right support in terms of incentives and investment.
My final reflection. What does the progress of these schools already show us? That the problem with Britain's children who don't get good results is not their ability. They can do it, given the chance. The same intake of pupils, the same mix of abilities, dramatically better results.
And I say to people in my own party and others who are against these changes, who believe any change from the traditional comprehensive model is a betrayal of principle. Failure to educate is the true betrayal, and failing to face up to the need for change is the cause of it.
We know our schools needed investment. We have provided it, and will provide more. We are the only major country in the world which last year, this year and next is markedly increasing education spending as a share of national income.
But the money only gets us so far. We also need change, allowing our schools to innovate and be more flexible to educate the individual - not stifled by uniformity but liberated to realise their potential. This academy and many others like it show the way.