I am delighted to be at this the 10th annual conference of the Technology Colleges Trust.
At your first conference you had only 60 schools as members or affiliates. Today you have 1,800. The majority of secondary-age pupils are now in specialist schools or in schools seeking to become specialist. This conference is now a highlight of the educational year, and the work of the Trust has become central to the cause of educational progress in this country.
I want to pay particular tribute to the outstanding leadership of Sir Cyril Taylor and Liz Reid, and to all those others who give of their time and effort - many of them on a wholly voluntary basis - to support the work of the trust. You are transforming secondary education in this country and you can be immensely proud of your achievements.
We are currently investing record sums in our education system - 6 per cent over and above inflation for each of the next three years.
Yet investment will only deliver higher standards if it drives radical change, including far greater diversity, devolution and choice. This is not just our view. It is your view, and the central purpose of the Technology Colleges Trust.
The education system we inherited was failing too many pupils - not just because it was under funded, but also because although the best schools were excellent, too many schools did not have the right structures, incentives and support needed to succeed. That is why investment is proceeding hand in hand with reform:
* Reform to secure basic national standards and proper accountability to parents.
* Reform to increase diversity and choice -so that individual schools, and the system at large, cater better for the talents and needs of each individual pupil.
* Reform to empower successful leaders - headteachers and your management teams - to run your schools without unnecessary bureaucratic interference.
* And reform to staffing and training, so that schools have the modern, skilled workforce they need.
To achieve these goals more funding and power are being devolved to the front line. The literacy and numeracy strategies are improving standards and teaching skills in our primary schools. The Key Stage 3 strategy is seeking to do the same for the early secondary years. Workforce reform is improving recruitment and retention, and boosting the role of assistants and others whose job is to enable teachers to teach better.
Specialist schools are also playing a vital part. You enhance diversity and choice, building centres of excellence school by school in return for additional investment. You are at the forefront of school improvement, for only schools with good leadership, and a credible strategy for raising standards, can gain and maintain specialist status. You are forging strong relationships with local employers and external sponsors. And within your ranks are most of the best schools in the country in terms of the training and deployment of staff.
You also demonstrate the truth that radical change almost always arouses controversy.
Specialist schools are one part of a broader reform programme. Let me be frank about its origins. There is a tension at the heart of public service reform. Set people working in the public services free and simply let them get on with it and the risk is those that fail to provide a good service carry on failing. And failure for pupils or patients is the greatest inequality there can be. But go to the other extreme, try to raise standards by central diktat, by bureaucratic edict and you risk stifling the very creativity that produces high standards.
We are trying to resolve that dilemma by national frameworks where necessary; but then granting greater and greater freedom on the basis of performance. In addition, we are trying to break down old demarcations in employment.
The aim is a system of far greater diversity of supply and flexibility in working. Hence specialist schools, foundation hospitals, PCTs and all the reforms to employment conditions.
But it does not come free from attack.
Some critics claim that greater diversity, autonomy and choice generate greater inequality or 'elitism'. They see a conflict between extending excellence and extending opportunity - not just in schools but also in universities and other public services. They tend to believe uniformity is the only guarantee of equality.
From the other end of the political spectrum are the unashamed elitists who do indeed want to limit opportunities to a minority; who argue that more means worse and that existing inequalities - whether in the differing status of schools or in the proportion funded to go on to university - are needed to preserve excellence from contamination.
The motivation of these critics is starkly at odds. But time and again they unite to defend the status quo and to seek to limit progressive reform.
The specialist school movement - both the concept of schools with different centres of excellence, and the expansion of the number of specialist schools - has been controversial from both these points of view.
When the last government first allowed schools to take on specialist status, it did so on an exclusive basis, restricting it to schools which had gone grant-maintained and limiting funding so that the opportunity to gain specialist status was tightly constrained. In 1997 there were only 181 specialist schools, concentrated for the most part in more advantaged areas.
Since 1997 we have ended this exclusivity. The programme has been rapidly accelerated. There are now 1,000 specialist schools, at an annual cost of ??150 million. Our target is for at least 2,000 specialist schools by 2006, with further expansion thereafter. Charles Clarke will set out proposals for this later in the week.
However, in expanding the specialist school programme and giving it prominence in our education strategy, a new set of critics came forward. They argued that even as expanded it was unfair because not every school would get the status immediately, but rather would have to earn it. However, giving specialist status to everyone immediately, without conditions, would have undermined the programme as an instrument of reform. That is why expansion has been rapid but phased, and why we support the Trust in maintaining a quality test both for admission and continuation in the programme.
More fundamentally, however, it was argued that the specialist concept - and the diversity it seeks to advance - was wrong. It was said to be irrelevant to raising standards. It would provoke unhealthy differences between schools which had previously appeared uniform. It would only further privilege schools and parents in the most advantaged areas, to the detriment of the rest. A new form of two-tier schooling would result.
You have shown these fears to be groundless.
Your schools recruit on a broadly comparable basis to non-specialist schools in terms of test results at age 11 and deprivation. Yet GCSE performance in specialist schools was this year eight percentage points higher than in non-specialist schools - 54 per cent to 46 per cent, in terms of those gaining five or more good passes. The statistics also show that the longer schools remain in the programme, the higher the rate of improvement. And among specialist schools with the most deprived intakes, the performance is equally marked, and so too is the rate of improvement over time.
Specialist status not only drives up performance and motivation in the specialist area. The evidence is clear that it serves as a whole-school improvement strategy. Success in one field sets a standard and helps drive up performance across the rest of the curriculum too. And, of course, specialist schools do nothing less than they did before: they do more, adding their specialist strength to the full national curriculum.
By developing new strengths, specialist schools increase choice for parents and pupils - although of course this depends upon the range of schools and the availability of places in the area in which you live.
There is example after example of this here in Birmingham and the West Midlands.
* This afternoon I visited Selly Park Technology College for Girls. Under Dame Wendy Davies's inspirational leadership, Selly Park has improved its five good GCSE rating from 27% to 70% in just five years. All girls are given a reading test at age 11. The 30% who are slow readers are given intensive remedial support.
* Similarly, under Dexter Hutt, Ninestiles Technology College here in Birmingham has improved its results in just five years from 31% to 72%, despite having 30% of pupils eligible for free school meals. The proportion going on to university has nearly trebled from 23% to 62%. There are 15 Advanced Skills Teachers leading change.
* Shireland Language College in Sandwell, under the leadership of Mark Grundy and with strong support from its sponsors HSBC, has virtually doubled the proportion of students gaining five good GCSE passes since becoming a specialist school in 1998, from 28% to 52%. They teach Chinese and Japanese as well as Punjabi, Arabic and Urdu, and are now a leading language college.
* Sir Kevin Satchwell at Thomas Telford CTC in Telford draws pupils from Wolverhampton and Telford and has pioneered on-line learning. For the past two years all the students have achieved five good GCSE passe - a national record for a school not selecting by ability. From the licensing fees of the IT On-Line Curriculum they have sponsored two City Academies and 30 specialist schools, an amazing achievement for a state-funded school. They are creating a highly innovative West Midland Learning Alliance of 30 schools.
I could go on. So many of you have brilliant stories to tell.
I've seen it in my own Sedgefield constituency, at the Sedgefield specialist sports school. It is transformed in terms of ethos, atmosphere, facilities, and achievement. And it is teaching exactly the same intake as before. The difference is they're getting better results.
Your achievements and innovation are generating a real sense of excitement and hope among parents and students across the country.
But this is no time for resting on laurels.
That is why we are not only expanding the number of specialist schools, but also urging you to intensify your efforts and responding to your desire to take forward the specialist concept more radically.
We want to see you lead in implementing the Key Stage Three strategy, driving up performance in the early secondary years and delivering higher test results in an area where we still have huge progress to make.
We want to join you in boosting the community role of specialist schools, and their engagement with non-specialist schools, particularly in forging partnerships with schools that are weak or struggling.
We welcome the broader range of specialisms, which now include engineering, science, business and enterprise.
We are developing City Academies, engaging new sponsors in highly innovative partnerships to establish entirely new schools, many of them with new specialisms such as business and enterprise, in some of our most challenging communities, particularly in Inner London. More than 20 academies have been announced, and we wish to see at least 50 academy partnerships forged by 2005.
We want too to press ahead with advanced schools, which Charles will be announcing soon, enabling our best specialist schools to take on a bigger role in teacher training, curriculum development, and in building up their centres of excellence for the benefit of their own pupils and of other schools and the wider local community.
And all schools which reach the required standard will have, under the latest Education Act pioneered by Estelle Morris, the freedom to hire staff, pay them flexibly, use the national curriculum in different ways and develop the school in the way it wants.
The conclusion from your success is clear. Specialist schools have driven forward opportunity and excellence together - not the one at the expense of the other.
I remember vividly a conversation with one local Party member. He had a superb CTC near him. "It's getting 90% of children with 5 A-C at GCSE" he said. "You should close it down".
What he meant was that excellence was creating pressure elsewhere in the system: the good school over-subscribed, teachers wanting to teach there, other schools feeling left behind.
Behind that debate lurks the unfinished business of the controversy over selection, grammar schools and the future of the comprehensive. It really is time to lay it to rest.
The grammar schools provided excellent education but it came at a cost. Children were divided up at 11, far too young an age to be sure of ability. And secondary moderns were inevitably stigmatised. The principle behind the comprehensive reform was right: equality of opportunity. The trouble was it all too often carried with it the notion that children should be treated as of the same ability; and that freedom for schools would mean freedom to discriminate.
The next 30 years was a struggle to escape this dilemma. Elitism v equality is the way the debate was put and its done enormous damage to conduct it in this way.
The truth is if there are insufficient centres of excellence in our education system, elitism is precisely what you get. The middle class either buy better education or they move house to be near the best comprehensive. Parents will always seek to do the best by their children and quite rightly. But those on lower incomes don't have the wherewithal to make the same choices.
The purpose of moving to a post- "one size fits all" comprehensive era, is to open up the system to diversity, different types of school, greater freedom to innovate - all with the goal of creating more good schools, in every community, but without going back to rigid separation aged 11. Schools will not treat children as of the same ability, but will rather nurture the talent of each child whatever the talent might be: true equality of opportunity.
It will mean there are good schools doing well and ones doing less well or even badly and acknowledged as such. But the task is not to deny the truth but to maximise the former and change the latter.
And the reason why diversity and choice is the key reform to achieve this goal, is that schools which do well are the schools with a distinctive ethos, effective leadership, flexibility in working and adapting to change. These qualities can be enabled (or harmed) from the centre but they can't be imposed by the centre. And the more choice there is for parents, the more pressure for change and improvement within the system.
City Academies, specialist schools, the best of the faith schools, comprehensives which are none of these but are using the freedoms we have given to drive up standards: these represent a modern way to promote excellence but on a fairer and broader basis. In this way, excellence is not the enemy of equality but ultimately its instrument. And none of us will not be satisfied until every community has an excellent school, whatever route it takes to get there.
There have to be certain national standards, programmes and systems of accountability. But within those, we need maximum devolution, flexibility, innovation and creativity, so that you get the chance to develop your schools in the way that most benefits the individual pupil - truly specialist schools, specialist and special.
And in the case of education, why are we doing this?
Because education was, is, always will be the Number One priority of this government.
Because my vision of Britain is one in which everyone, whatever their background, has the opportunity to make the most of their potential. There is no greater waste, than the wasted talent of a child held back by poverty, or by lack of opportunity.
But this is about more than our passionate belief in equality of opportunity. Our commitment to education also springs from our understanding of the modern world, and of the challenge facing Britain.
It is a world in which the countries that build economic and social strength are those that make the most of all the talents of all the people. That is the country I am determined Britain should be.
Of course, it is a good thing in itself, if we get 50% of our young people to university on the basis of higher school standards.
But it is also vital to the future of the UK that it succeeds in the new knowledge economy.
Our reforms are not about encouraging elitism, but about giving more children a fair chance.
Reform is not the enemy of social justice and educational advance, but the route to it.
Specialist schools are not a means of shutting deprived children out of excellence, but a means of giving them access to it.
That is why your work is so important. That is why we will continue to support it. That is why together we shall succeed.