It is hazardous for a Prime Minister to speak in Oxford on education. However, I am not in search of an honorary degree; and I could hardly decline after Roy Jenkins pointed out to me that the first Romanes lecture was given by Mr Gladstone who also took education as his theme.
On closer investigation in Roy's superb biography, I discovered that Gladstone gave the lecture when he had just become Prime Minister for the fourth time at the age of 82. The thought crossed my mind that I should seek a postponement until 2034. But this idea didn't linger long, you will be relieved to hear.
My title this evening is 'The Learning Habit'. I want to explain what the government is seeking to achieve in its programme of education reform, and how as a nation in the 21st century we can achieve a 'learning habit' across society - a nation hooked on learning, not just as young people, but throughout life.
Let me first set the context. As we took office, we could look at some areas of real improvement over the previous twenty years - for example, industrial competitiveness, and curbing excessive trade union power. But some things had got worse. Economic management was poor, with two deep recessions in two decades. There was chronic instability - boom and bust - in the economic cycle. Borrowing was ??28bn and national debt doubled at the up-stage of the cycle, an unsustainable position. Investment in infrastructure and the public services was declining as a proportion of national income. The share of national income spent on education was falling sharply. Unemployment was set to rise, pushing up social security spending, which had already risen by 4% in real terms over the last Parliament, a higher rate than spending on schools, hospitals and transport.
These things were integrally linked. Economic instability meant business failed to invest. Rising unemployment and social exclusion increased unproductive spending and crowded out investment in the future. A lack of investment harmed competitiveness, and so on.
First, we had to put the economy on a sound footing. The new system of economic management - Bank of England independence plus the new fiscal rules - is now in place. It is too soon to claim that we have definitely beaten boom and bust, but we have come through a downturn without a recession for the first time in decades. Inflation and interest rates are at historic lows. Partially through this, and partially through measures like the New Deal and the Working Families Tax Credit, unemployment is falling. Youth unemployment has actually halved and we now have Britain's highest ever level of employment.
As a result, social security spending on social and economic failure is falling. After two tight years of pubic spending - something, incidentally, that is a promise kept, not a promise broken - we are now in a period of steady rise in the proportion of national income spent on education and health, in particular. By the end of this Parliament, both will be higher; and with continuing sound economic management, we can then plan substantial investment in the three years after that.
But with investment will come essential reform. Money for modernisation is what we promised, and it is what we will deliver.
Our number one priority for investment is education. The reason for this is simple. In the 21st century, as we forge a new progressive politics on the centre-left, the battle of this century between the 'economic' and the 'social' will end. The old dispute between those who favour growth and personal prosperity, and those who favour social justice and compassion, is over. The liberation of human potential - for all the people, not just a privileged few - is in today's world the key both to economic and social progress. In economic terms, human capital is a nation's biggest resource. Brainpower, skills and flexibility - not cheap manual labour - are the key to competitiveness and productivity. In social terms, the old basis of civic society, built around deference and hierarchy, will not do. Today's people will accept citizenship on nothing less than equal terms - opportunity to all, responsibility from all.
Education is critical to both the economic and the social, and the implications are profound. For the nation as a whole, it means shifting from a low skill average to a high skill average - or as I put it, excellence for the many, not just the few. The wider purpose of schools must also change, in a society where rights and duties need to be justified and accepted, not inherited and imposed. Yet most important of all is the implication for the type of education we need. On the one hand, universal competence in the basic skills, including ICT. On the other, diversity with excellence - an education meeting the full range of individual needs beyond the basics, both the innate abilities too often neglected at present, and the specific training and skills suited to people's aptitudes, which requires a far more flexible system of secondary and post-16 education.
Universal competence in the basics. Diversity with excellence beyond, meeting the needs of each individual. A learning habit spanning society, at all ages. I believe it is now possible to achieve a world class education system which meets these objectives. Later I will explain how, building on our resolute commitment to basic skills, exploiting the vast potential of ICT, and taking forward a programme of significant further investment and modernisation in our schools and learning institutions. And not only can we achieve it, but we will achieve it, if we resolve to do so as a nation.
However, to grasp the future we need to understand the past and present. As a country, we value continuity as much as change, and we are often right to do so. In education, we can be justly proud of parts of our inheritance. A tradition of scholarship, discovery and creativity second to none. Some of the best universities in the world. Many excellent schools and dedicated teachers. But when it comes to education for the broad majority of the people, we need with honesty and frankness to confront our past, not continue it. We must understand where we went wrong. Why we reached the end of the first century of universal state education with nearly one in four of our adults lacking basic literacy, the highest proportion in Europe except in Poland and Ireland; ranking 25th in international assessments for maths among 13-year-olds; with poor average school standards and widespread indifference to achievement, despite the best efforts of so many schools and teachers.
Cultural forces have played a part. So too the structure of an economy built on mass manual labour, with little premium on higher skills in its major industries and too little innovation and enterprise.
These themes are well rehearsed by historians and economists. But I want to highlight another factor too little emphasised, but I believe utterly critical - political indifference and lack of leadership. This too has deep roots. For most of the last 150 years, mass education has been of at best fitful concern to England's political leaders, left and right. In consequence, central government has taken scant interest in standards and investment, too often dismissing as a matter of local concern and regulation what was in truth a chronic failure of national leadership and responsibility.
Mr Gladstone is a telling case. I do not for a moment deny that he was one of our greatest Prime Ministers. But not as an educational reformer. At a time when leading Continental states - Germany in particular - were forging ahead in primary and technical education, Gladstone's Liberal governments would go no further than to allow local ratepayers to set up primary schools if they so wished. Gladstone rejected compulsory schooling as 'adverse to the national character', opposed the abolition of fees in primary schools, and was agitated that, even at its then paltry levels, state education spending would explode unless reined in. Characteristically, his Romanes lecture - delivered in 1892, by when Britain's educational failings were clearly apparent - was an erudite account of the history and strength of the ancient universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, with not a hint of concern about the world beyond.
I am not, as it were, expecting Edison to have invented the Internet. England's weakness in mass education was the subject of sustained commentary among the Victorians, by royal commissions and others, as it has been ever since. Yet the political will to lead and act was rarely present and never sufficient. When in 1839 Lord Melbourne's government made the first state grant for schools - equivalent to a tiny fraction of what Prussia was then spending - the minister responsible told Parliament that English education was 'very inferior' to that of northern Europe, and 'the want of education and the deficiency of the means of popular instruction are almost universally admitted'. Yet it was another 30 years before the state took direct responsibility for providing primary schools, and fully 50 years before primary schooling was free and compulsory. Average standards remained very low.
The slow growth of secondary education is an equally sorry tale. By the 1880s, there was widespread agreement that government needed to act. Two decades followed of ineffective half measures and haggling about who would do it and pay for it. Finally came a ministerial admission that the situation was critical and that something had to be done- this time from Arthur Balfour, the only Prime Minister before Jim Callaghan to take much interest in state schooling. This is Balfour introducing his 1902 Education Bill: 'From the example of America, or Germany or France, or any other country which has devoted itself to educational problems, I am forced to the conclusion that ours is the most antiquated, the most ineffectual, and the most wasteful method yet invented for providing a national education'.
Yet what happened? Thirty-five years later, on the eve of the Second World War, not even four in ten 14-year-olds were attending secondary school. At the end of the war came a half step forward with the Butler Act of 1944. But a half step at best, because universal secondary education came with the 11-plus, consigning the majority of teenagers to secondary modern schools which were soon a by-word for failure. So too with the promise of a school-leaving age of 16, not honoured for yet another 30 years because schools were too low a spending priority for Tory and Labour governments alike.
National indifference and lack of leadership. It was revealed in so many other ways too. In poor support and recognition for the teaching profession. In the buck-passing between central and local government on major issues of policy and investment - in stark contrast to health, where, under Aneurin Bevan, the post-war Labour government took a decisive lead. And in the low status of the education ministry for most of its history, and its semi-detached status within the education world itself. I regret to say it was Labour's Reg Prentice who had this to say of his 15 months as Education Secretary in the mid-1970s: 'We had very little education policy when I was there, and what there was meant very little to me'. What a depressing but revealing statement. Imagine an ex-Chancellor writing of his time at the Treasury: 'we had very little economic policy, and what little there was meant very little to me'. Even if it was true, they wouldn't dare to admit it.
In retrospect, the mid-1970s marked the turning point, and Jim Callaghan famously came to Oxford to say so. Jim Callaghan knew vividly from his own experience both the power of education and the price of missed opportunities. His 1976 Ruskin speech began with Tawney's words: 'the endowments of our children are the most precious of the natural resources of the community'. So why, he asked, was industry complaining that recruits from schools 'sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job'? Why was there no national curriculum? What should be done about teaching practices which 'seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not'? What was 'the proper way of monitoring the use of resources to maintain a proper national standard of performance?
Read today, the speech is remarkably tame. The sensation was caused not so much by what he said, but the fact that he was saying it. For the first time ever, a Prime Minister was placing national school standards high on the political agenda and suggesting that government should give a firm lead and take proper responsibility.
It has taken another twenty years for this to happen. I readily acknowledge that the last government moved some way forward in its later years, establishing a national curriculum and introducing overdue reforms such as the GCSE, national testing and regular school inspections. However, few would claim that education was among the last government's key priorities. We inherited a situation all too little changed from Jim Callaghan's day: average performance far too low; inadequate momentum to improve it; and - an integral part of the problem - an inadequate system of accountability and responsibility, from the centre outwards.
National leadership and purpose
So let me say where I stand. It is central to my conception of politics, in an age when 'the endowments of our children' are - literally, not just rhetorically - 'the most precious of the natural resources of the community', that government should give proper leadership and take proper responsibility for educational standards in this country. Not doing so, in the modern world, is as great a dereliction of the national interest as failing to maintain an adequate defence or foreign policy.
What does it mean for government to take proper leadership and responsibility?
I believe it means three things - and not just 'education, education and education'.
First, government must take national responsibility for investment in raising standards, and place the imperative for this at the top of the political agenda. In doing so, its intervention should be in inverse proportion to success - full accountability, decisive action to tackle failure, but trust and reward for successful leaders.
Second, government must set clear goals. I will set out what I believe to be our fundamental goal: an education system combining diversity with excellence. High standards for everyone in the basics in primary schools, as a platform for an education liberating the talent and capacity of each individual. For our primary schools this means investment in a broader curriculum and set of opportunities as we achieve near universal competence in the basics. But the most radical implications are for our secondary schools, where we need to abandon, once and for all, a mindset which views only two broad options: an entire system based on selection, with some kind of 11-plus, on the one hand; or on the other, standardised, monolithic comprehensives offering a standardised, monolithic provision for pupils whose needs are highly diverse and individual. We need diversity with excellence to be the hallmark of the secondary system, rejecting completely the notion of a comprehensive education treating different provision for different individuals as a betrayal of their equal worth. In the modern world, diversity with excellence - schools with distinct centres of excellence, providing radically different opportunities and provision for pupils with different needs - is the only viable future for our secondary schools. This is now increasingly recognised in the secondary sector; we need it to become universally so.
Our third task is to be equally robust and ambitious about opportunities beyond 16 - how to abolish, once and for all, the notion of an education leaving age of 16. But equally, how to combine diversity with excellence in our colleges and universities, where a wide variety of quality provision focused on individual needs is as necessary as it is in secondary schools.
Let me take these in turn. First, national responsibility for investment in raising standards.
As a government we have set out, more boldly than any of our predecessors, our objectives in education, and the investment required to meet them.
We said the nation's key priority was early education, and shaped our programme accordingly. Under-five provision so that children start school ready to learn. Primary schools with no classes of more than 30 in the infant years. Far better and more focused teaching in the key skills of literacy and numeracy. We have done as we promised - a nursery place for every four year old whose parents want one. A large increase in places for three year olds. On target next year virtually to eliminate classes of more than 30 for five, six and seven year-olds. A significant advance in literacy and numeracy standards.
We said we would make provide a step change in investment in school buildings and infrastructure, too much of which is in a deplorable state after decades of neglect. We have done as we promised: capital spending on schools will double in real terms over the course of this Parliament. More than 10,000 schools have already been upgraded.
We said we would tackle failing schools and local education authorities. We are doing so. Failing LEA services are being contracted out, and both the number of failing schools, and the time taken to turn them around, are falling.
We said we would reform student finance in an equitable way, to improve the funding of universities after a decade of serious erosion and to allow for further expansion in student numbers. We have done so, with a reform which takes full account of each family's circumstances - a third of students paying no fees at all, a third paying a reduced fee, and only a third paying ??1,025, which itself represents only a quarter of the average cost of a university course. Through this reform we have been able to increase university funding in real terms, expand student numbers; separately, in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, we have increased funding for university research and infrastructure by ??1.4 billion.
We said we would increase education spending as a share of national income over the course of this Parliament. We are on course to do so. Given the strong economy, this is generating a very significant rise in education spending, an increase of at least 16% in real terms over this year and the next two.
In saying this, I am not just blowing the government's trumpet. I am spelling out what we mean by national responsibility for investment in raising standards and enhancing opportunities. And this is only the first step. I know how much more there remains to be done, in universities as elsewhere. There will be no less demanding targets, and the investment to back them up, in our programme for the next Parliament. Let me make it absolutely clear. Education will continue to have the first call on public resources in return for a step-change in standards.
But national leadership is not just about providing the resources. It is about guaranteeing that they are used for their purpose - to modernise and raise standards. Where that means government acting decisively to bring about reform and higher standards, we have done so and will continue to do so - and not repeat the error of the past and remain indifferent on the sidelines.
Consider the nation's most basic educational objective of all - ensuring that all our young people are literate and numerate. Until the introduction of national tests for eleven year-olds four years ago, and the publication of the results, there was no means of parents knowing the success of primary schools, school by school, in getting children up to standard in English and maths, let alone what the national picture was.
When revealed, the national picture was deeply shocking. In 1996, 43% of 11 year-olds well below standard in English; 46% below standard in maths. A child who cannot read cannot learn. Nearly half - half - of pupils were going on to secondary school without the basic tools to be able to learn, after six years of full-time schooling. And that was the national picture. In a large number of primary schools, and some entire local education authorities, most of the pupils were reaching 11 without the essential tools of literacy and numeracy. What chance of a learning society on that shameful foundation? And should we have been surprised that levels of disaffection and drop-out are so high at secondary level, giving us one of the lowest staying-on rates at 16 in the developed world?
At this point, abstract arguments dissolve. Ensuring that children leave primary school with the basic tools of literacy and numeracy is the most fundamental task of the education system. It was not happening. So we acted. One of David Blunkett's first acts as Education Secretary was to set up a Standards and Effectiveness Unit within the Department for Education and Employment, which developed literacy and numeracy strategies based on best practice in primary teaching. A nationally determined, locally delivered programme of teacher training followed, with special help for schools with the lowest test results, all supported by national investment. New literacy and numeracy lessons were introduced on a national model. National targets were set - 80% of 11 year-olds to be up to standard in literacy by 2002, 75% in numeracy - and translated into targets for each individual school by local authorities. National investment to reduce all early years classes to below 30 was also instituted, because of the evidence that smaller class sizes in the early years improved teaching of the basics. Taken together, a budget of more than ??1billion - ??1billion of new money - was allocated to implement this programme and to generate a step-change in primary standards.
Two years later, large classes in the early years have been almost eliminated. Teachers and parents overwhelmingly support the literacy and numeracy lessons in schools. Test results have improved sharply - this year's reached 70% in literacy and 69% in numeracy - in the full glare of local and national attention. The feverish expectation surrounding the publication of this year's test results reminded me of what used to accompany the balance of payments figures, so great is the political and media interest now in school standards. And I am pleased to say that David Blunkett, who took full responsibility for the national targets - another first - looks set to be around for a good while yet!
I have gone into the literacy and numeracy strategies in some detail, not, I suppose, because they will be of much use to anyone here preparing for finals, but because they demonstrate what I mean about government giving proper leadership and taking proper responsibility. As a Government we acknowledge our duty, on behalf of parents and children, to secure acceptable minimum standards in schools - all schools - something that should have been done decades ago. If schools are to succeed they also need the maximum resources available - which is why we are pressing local education authorities so hard to delegate more to the front line, and not to hold money back in bureaucracy or an outdated belief that, except in cases of failure, they know better how to spend money than do the headteachers in charge.
Across the education system, where standards are being met our approach is one of high autonomy in return for full accountability, allowing maximum freedom to the successful. In the case of higher education, I know that universities are not always over the moon about existing accountability arrangements. Acronyms like RAE, TQA and QAA don't seem to get much of a cheer when in audiences like this. But let me say that we take seriously the principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success, which is why the future of teaching quality assessments, in particular, is being reviewed to keep red tape to an absolute minimum.
Diversity with excellence
This brings me to my second theme, diversity with excellence.
The starting point is clear enough - every child must be competent in basic skills. 80% in literacy and 75% will be a major step forward, but not enough. Beyond 2002, a further intense national effort is required to get as close to 100% as we can. Tackling adult basic skills is also vital, and David Blunkett intends radical action to follow the Moser report's findings on the acute challenge we face in this area.
It is equally clear that the concept of basic skills can no longer be restricted to literacy and numeracy. Proficiency in ICT has become a basic skill, even for a Prime Minister. Its importance will increase exponentially within very few years, not least within the learning process itself. After 500 years of just 'teachers and books', we suddenly have a continuous stream of new technologies enhancing the learning process. Leading edge schools are already deploying composition programmes in Music, digital cameras in Art, simulation software in Design and Technology and Science, spreadsheets in Mathematics and in Business Studies, the Internet across the curriculum and interactive programmes in languages and many other subjects. ICT is permeating every school and the entire curriculum.
We are the beginning of the end of an era of education - an era where the issue for most part was how to achieve the maximum amount of learning within limited teaching resources. Entering the 21st century with the new technology, our goal is to become 'learning bound' not 'teacher bound' - not to replace teachers, but to enhance and supplement them - in and out of school - with the vast interactive resources of ICT. It has been estimated that the full cost of one school teacher-hour is ??50 and, rightly for our teachers, it is rising; but the full cost of one school ICT-hour is about 75p, and dropping at 20% year, at the same time as the inherent capability of the technology is rising. And as it rises, in the hands of skilled teachers as learning managers, so too does the capacity for ICT to personalise learning - to provide the tailored support for different aptitudes and needs which is critical to the future. This is one of the most exciting and important implications of ICT.
The transformation ahead may be as significant as the rise of organised schooling itself. And not just for young people, but for all people. This time Britain must and will be an international leader. Our position is strong. We already have one of the most ICT literate school leaving population in the developed world. In the National Grid for Learning and the University for Industry we have a strategy and investment programme to keep us there, spreading ICT learning far beyond the school-age population. With continued investment, not least in R&D, and the right commercial partnerships, we can lead in the application of ICT to all areas of the curriculum. This will be one of our highest priorities as a government.
Literacy, numeracy and the ability to use ICT are the three key skills which every school and college leaver requires, and which every adult should have the means of mastering and updating, whether in the workplace, at home, in college or through the new technology itself. But no one argues that they are an end in themselves, or that primary schools should concentrate on them at the expense of all else. Our position has always been clear. To tackle the crisis we faced in school literacy and numeracy, basic skills had to become the overriding priority of primary schools. We believe they should continue to be so in each school until the overwhelming majority of pupils are achieving the competence needed for their age as a matter of course. Secondary schools also need to pay proper attention to literacy and numeracy for those students who are below standard. But once we have achieved excellence in basic skills, we need a proper diversity of opportunities beyond, so that the aptitudes and abilities of every individual are developed to the full. Education is for life, not just for jobs. I make no excuse for placing literacy and numeracy at its core. They too are for life, not just for jobs, and those who lack them, young or old, are handicapped, socially as much as economically. But as we succeed in reaching the standard needed in these key skills school by school, we will be able to pay increasing attention - and make an increasing investment - in the broader curriculum and range of opportunities for our young people. Singapore, with academic results among the highest in the world, recently appointed a commission to report on education for the 21st century. It concluded that education needed to go beyond skill acquisition 'to instil qualities such as curiosity, creativity, enterprise, leadership, teamwork and perseverance', developing young people in the 'moral, social, physical and aesthetic domains'. That is our ambition too. Many schools already achieve a great deal in these areas and year by year - most recently with David Blunkett's drive to improve citizenship education in our schools - we move forward. But there is more to be done, both in primary schools, and still more for secondary schools, where the modernisation of the comprehensive principle is in its early stages.
Let me start at primary level with a few concrete examples. Modern languages. English may be the new lingua franca, a competitive advantage for us as a nation, not least in education. But the competitive advantage for each of us as individuals is the capacity to make our way as freely as possible through the new Europe and the wider world. Everyone knows that with languages the earlier you start, the easier they are. The national curriculum rightly makes a modern language compulsory from the beginning of secondary school. But many children gain a valuable head start earlier. Some primary schools already do excellent work in this area, and language teaching from the age of seven or eight is almost universal in independent schools, once competence in the basics has been achieved. As all schools move towards universal competence in literacy and numeracy, the scope for more language teaching in the later primary years is something we are seriously considering.
So too with music and sport. David Blunkett has done a great deal to promote sport and music in our schools, including tough action to prevent the sale of sports fields, new funding for local music provision, and new specialist secondary schools for sports and the arts. Yet as we succeed with literacy and numeracy, more can be done. Too many schools we visit have no sports facilities, let alone playing fields and organised games. Too many young children lack the chance to learn a musical instrument, or to develop talent in other branches of the arts. Opportunities are too unevenly spread, particularly for those who have so few to start with. There is no single blueprint for improvement. But music, art, sport, and languages all have a part to play, in school and beyond. The idea of the 9 to 3.30, Monday to Friday school - with no after-school or holiday activities - must become a thing of the past.
Once we have got the basics right, we develop the skills and talents of all our young people to the full. This requires opportunities for all, reflecting the equal worth of all. It is not a question of equal provision for all, let alone - as some on the Right allege - of prizes for all simply for taking part. How many children sit in schools today, with low ambitions but with huge reserves of talent that have never been unearthed? A sports enthusiast at a school with no playing fields, no competitive sports, no place to practice. A child with a talent for music, but no chance to learn a musical instrument, or to go to a concert? A would-be actor with no drama club or production to take part in? A potential leader with no responsibility? All those for whom the chance to excel - or even experience - has never been given; or who go to schools where everything stops at 3.30, and there are none of the organised activities and instruction which the more fortunate take for granted? As a nation we have done superbly, over generations, for a small number. At the top, the standards we achieve, and the emphasis we place on education beyond the classroom, are internationally renowned - the pastoral dimension, sport, music, voluntary service in the community. But we need to make them nationally renowned too, by making them available to all. This is what I mean by equal worth - a one-nation society in which all citizens have the same rights and responsibilities. Our goal is high standards; realism and rigour in ensuring that young people pursue courses that suit them; but no ceilings to ambition or impediments to its realisation.
Let me summarise the picture so far. Nationwide nursery provision which prepares all children to learn at primary school. Primary schools which achieve universal competence in the basics. As this is achieved, a broader range of opportunities and skills, starting in primary leading through to secondary, so that children have an equal chance to develop their aptitudes to the full. Proper emphasis on moral and social education throughout.
This brings me to secondary schools, where the challenge is greater still to fulfil the potential of each individual pupil.
To move forward, we need to confront our past in secondary education, and to understand what went wrong here in particular. Comprehensive schools were devised as a way of radically improving a system which consigned 80% of children to a second-class education and second-class jobs thereafter. It was a reaction to an undoubted injustice - the injustice of determining a child's ability and potential at the age of 11, and in effect, whatever the intention, branding them a success or a failure. Few people now want to return to that system for the whole nation. But most people recognise that children do indeed have different abilities; and often different aptitudes in different subjects. What is more, simply proclaiming that we have a 'comprehensive system' is no use if in fact there are vast disparities in the quality of one comprehensive against another.
What this Government is undertaking is, in effect, a radical modernisation of the comprehensive system. We are replacing the 'one size fits all' concept with a massive extension of diversity within the system - on the basis of high standards for all in basic skills as the platform for excellence. This is why we are pushing forward so strongly with specialist schools. Specialist schools build on the national curriculum to develop areas of specialist excellence within comprehensives, whether technology, sport, the arts or modern languages, with business and community sponsorship. Setting is also being encouraged. New programmes of pupil support are being developed, promoting the needs of gifted and talented pupils, taking welfare workers directly into schools, and providing headteachers with better tools to tackle disaffection and barriers to learning on an individual basis.
There is much further to go in all these areas. This is after all only common sense. Children do indeed have different abilities. To admit it is not elitist, but necessary if we are to build an education system around the equal worth of each individual child. Universities have a part to play, particularly in raising aspirations and helping schools to make appropriate provision for their more able pupils. Last week I launched a university summer school programme for 5,000 pupils from schools in the six largest cities. I am glad that Oxford is one of the universities involved, and I was delighted to meet a group of Oxford students, pioneering an access scheme, who came to the launch in a north London comprehensive. We need a step change in the quantity and quality of relationships between schools and universities, alongside improved links between schools and employers.
We also need diversity with excellence in the provision of new schools. In the last two years Muslim and other groups have received state funding for new schools providing education for their faith communities, building on our long tradition of Church schools. There is room for greater diversity in the provision of new schools at secondary level too, not only for those with a religious motivation, but for those with other distinct missions, particularly centres of excellence in mainstream areas of the curriculum.
Post-16 and universities
Our ambitions are similarly high for post-16 education. Our best students perform exceptionally well here too, although we accept the general criticism that, even at the top, achievement could be higher still if the A-level curriculum was broader, which is why new AS levels are being introduced so that students begin sixth form with four or five subjects before narrowing down. However, our biggest challenge is again with the middle and bottom third of achievers. For the middle third, opportunities to progress to worthwhile, vocationally-oriented HE courses are too restricted, which is why we are looking to a further expansion of higher education focusing, in particular, on new two year courses, akin to US associate degrees, to meet high skill needs in particular vocational areas.
With the bottom third, the situation is frankly deplorable. Today, in 1999, 160,000 16 to 18 year-olds - nearly one in ten of the total - are neither in education and training nor have a job. Most of them left school with no GCSEs whatever, or practically so. A further 17 per cent undertake no formal education or training, usually because their qualifications and motivation are not up to it. So a quarter of our school leavers have effectively given up on education and training, and have often done so well before leaving school. No surprise, then, that our staying-on rates in education and training are far below the EU average.
The roots of this lie in the widespread failure, demotivation and under-performance at school which I have described already. But incentives to stay-on, and the range and quality of post-16 education, are also important, and we are addressing these too. Pilots have just started with Education Maintenance Allowances - cash allowances of up to ??40 a week for students from lower-income families who are engaged in worthwhile post-16 courses. If these make sufficient impact, we are ready to introduce such allowances nationwide, as part of our commitment to student support to encourage participation and achievement. We are also promoting new arrangements for post-16 education and training, to improve work-based training and provision in our further education colleges, which are a crucial but under-appreciated part of the education system.
Our vision is simple. It is to abolish the outdated notion of an education leaving age of 16. To make staying-on, whether physically in a school or college or by combining work with study, perhaps through ICT, as common as success in literacy and numeracy at primary school. And by doing so to instil a habit of lifelong learning - giving each individual the capacity and flexibility to benefit from learning and training throughout life, particularly when it comes to changing jobs and updating skills.
Universities also have a critical part to play in the learning society. I need hardly stress how important excellence and diversity are in higher education, as in schools. The last government was right to dismantle the artificial barriers of title which divided universities from polytechnics. The result, has not been convergence on some identikit average, and nor should it be. Universities develop their own missions according to their strengths. This government will always be careful to target resources so as to secure best value and excellence, both in teaching and research. Government has a responsibility both to fund research adequately and to ensure that resources for university teaching and student support safeguard quality and open access. We were mindful of both obligations in our reforms to student finance and in our large extra investment in research and the science base.
We will continue to pay close attention to the pressures on universities. But the future is as much in your hands as ours. I am told that less than one third of Oxford's income now comes from the government's Higher Education Funding Council. Universities, particularly the world leaders including Oxford, compete in an increasingly international market for research, staff, students and innovation. You are at threshold of an ICT revolution which could transform the very idea of the university as a community of learning, as surely as ICT will transform learning in schools. In the knowledge economy, entrepreneurial universities will be as important as entrepreneurial businesses, the one fostering the other. Universities are wealth creators in their own right: in the value they add through their teaching at home; in the revenue, commitment and goodwill for the UK they generate from overseas students, a market we need to exploit as ambitiously as possible; and in their research and development, of incalculable impact to the economy at large. We look to you, and to our other leading universities, not only as the guardians of traditions of humane learning on which your reputation depends; but also as one of our key global industries of the future, able to give the UK a decisive competitive advantage within Europe and beyond in the 21st century economy. This means government giving you the support only we can provide; but it means universities generating the maximum possible entrepreneurial drive on a national and international plane.
Underpinning all that I have said this evening is a broader theme. A learning society does not just depend upon well-educated individuals. It requires learning institutions throughout society. I don't just mean schools, colleges and universities. In the knowledge economy, every organisation, from the business to the community group, the hospital to the employment agency, has constantly to improve itself. To succeed, it must be open and receptive to change, to best practice at home and abroad, to competitive pressures, to new ways of working, to the new demands of customers and consumers. Organisations capable of reflecting systematically on what they do - lessons learned, evaluations, assessments, benchmarking against the best in the world - and developing their staff accordingly.
This is a challenge for business. In Silicon Valley, companies are tested for their success in getting new knowledge onto the balance sheet. But it is no less a challenge for the public sector. The public sector has been slow to put in place knowledge management systems - so that for example local police forces can learn from international best practice, and schools can learn from their counterparts overseas. Initiatives such as the new National College for School Leadership for school leaders, and the Centre for Management and Policy Studies established in the heart of Whitehall, are intended to counter this weakness. And here too universities have a part to play, with your international perspective and sources of knowledge and research.
I began with Mr Gladstone and the fundamental failure in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide excellence for the many in education. Confronting our past is difficult and painful, particularly when the past is so recent. It is only ten years since Kenneth Baker described moving from the Department of the Environment to the Department of Education as 'like moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton. You crossed the river and dropped two divisions'. Now it is only one, and some of us might not take the same view of Arsenal. But all of us know that a nation whose government relegates education out of the premier division will end up relegated in everything else too. Our mission is not just to reverse that decline. It is to mobilise, with all the strength we can, the purpose and resolve of this generation to transform Britain into a learning society. A society where the learning habit empowers the many, not the few. Where our top universities cease to be oases of opportunity for the fortunate few, and
become the apex of an educational pyramid spanning the whole of society. It can be done. We have started. All we need is the will to see it through.