We are delighted to welcome here today headteachers and teachers from a number of outstanding schools and early years centres.
Let me start by paying tribute to the magnificent work our teachers are doing to raise standards in all our schools.
I know the pressures and responsibilities you face, day in, day out. Teaching was never an easy job. But it has never been more challenging than today, in the face of the rising demands of parents and employers and profound change in our society and economy.
As a government we are unashamed in wanting first-rate opportunities for our young people - all of them, not just a privileged few as in the past. We don't want a single child left behind.
I spoke last week about a society of opportunity for all, matched by responsibility from all. A society genuinely based on merit and equal worth, in which the talent of the people is truly set free. Our teachers and schools are indispensable to making this vision a reality, working with parents and all others with a stake in our communities. Nothing is more important than education to our future prospects as a nation, which is why I put education at the top of the Government's agenda in 1997 and intend to keep it there for as long as we remain in office.
But this is not only our vision. It is yours too. It is why you are leaders in our schools and other parts of the education system. It is why you, like us, want to see dramatic change.
I have never met a successful teacher or headteacher satisfied with the status quo. Yes, I know that some of the changes you want relate to investment and support. We want them too, and have made a start.
But you want them for the same purpose as us - to transform our schools, so that each young person gains the skills they need for the knowledge economy, and the foundation in values and individual responsibility they need to be effective citizens.
Our task, in partnership, is to bring about that transformation.
In this Parliament we said that we would get the basics right in primary schools and start to put in place the investment needed in our schools and teachers at large.
We have done so. 120,000 more free nursery places than in 1997 and Sure Start launched, so that children arrive at school ready to learn, whatever their background. Primary school standards at their highest ever. The infant class size pledge delivered nationwide this September. 17,000 schools with funding for repairs and renewal. Excellence in Cities, Education Action Zones and the specialist school programmes driving up standards in secondary schools. A massive expansion in ICT. A programme of reforms and investment to improve the status of teaching - the General Teaching Council, now up and running; the National College for School leadership, now up and running; salaries for graduate teacher trainees; a ??2,000 pay increase for teachers passing the new performance threshold; ICT training and computers for teachers; Advanced Skills Teachers; and a big increase in the number of teaching assistants and mentors to help in schools. All this underpinned by a step-change in education spending - a real-terms increase of more than one third in the five years to 2003-04, more than was achieved in the entire 18 years of the last government.
I want particularly to single out the primary school literacy and numeracy strategies. These represent an historic partnership for change between teachers, parents and Government. School by school, through the daily literacy and numeracy lessons and the training of teachers, standards of teaching have risen. Test results have improved sharply - the lowest performing areas now achieving better than the average did just four years ago. And as teaching and results have improved, so has parental and public confidence in our primary schools.
This is a great achievement in its own right. It is also a beacon for the future. What we have done together, teachers, parents and government, is to demonstrate that it is possible to bring about a rapid step-change improvement in our state school system. The do-nothing pessimists of Left and Right - those who said things couldn't be improved much, it was all social conditions, and those who said there was no point investing more, it would all go down the drain - have been proved wrong.
We must keep proving them wrong. We have much more to do in primary and the early years, and will set out plans for this. But our central task in the period ahead is to build on the achievement in primary schools and bring about a similar transformation in our secondary schools.
Nothing will be achieved unless we recruit and retain more good teachers. David Blunkett will be announcing important new measures today, including writing off student loans for new trainees in certain subjects, as part of our ongoing investment to make teaching more attractive and rewarding, harder to do in circumstances of almost full employment in parts of the country.
But in secondary as in primary, we also need to get the fundamentals right. And that can only come from a clear understanding of the requirements of secondary education in the 21st century.
Those requirements can be simply stated. Every secondary age pupil must be competent in the basics of literacy, numeracy and ICT and experience a broad curriculum beyond. Every secondary school pupil, with this basic competence, must have their talents recognised and developed to the full, particularly after the age of 14, so that that they achieve good qualifications by the age of 16 and progress to further or higher education or formal work-related training. And every school should instill in its pupils a strong sense of independence and responsibility, to themselves and their wider community.
These demands are much greater than those made of secondary schools in the last generation, and we must be explicit in recognising the overhaul of our comprehensive system needed to meet them.
Until the very recent past, for all the ideals animating education reformers, only a minority of school leavers gained good qualifications. Levels of failure remained stubbornly high. Even today, despite improvements year by year, fewer than half of 16 year-olds achieve five or more good GCSEs, while levels of complete drop-out and the proportion achieving barely any qualifications remain unacceptably high. In last year's statutory tests for 14 year-olds, just six in ten were at the standard expected of their age in each of English, mathematics and science.
This historic poor performance was rooted in society and economy. Parental expectations of secondary schools were generally poor. The economic demand for higher-level skills was far lower than today. There was general acceptance that only a minority would go on to higher education, and that those not on the academic route didn't need much by way of formal qualifications.
These forces shaped the comprehensive system as it developed in the Sixties and Seventies. So too did the legacy of the post-1944 selective system. Comprehensives were established in opposition to a rigid and unfair system of selection between schools at the age of 11. The need to differentiate provision to individual aptitudes within schools often took second place. Inclusion too readily became an end in itself, rather than the means to identify and provide better for the talents of each individual pupil.
Comprehensives reflected their time in other important respects. They were mostly established by wholesale school reorganisations, on a model often allowing little scope for schools to develop distinctive characters, apart from the continuing role of Church schools and pre-existing foundations. Inadequate funding further limited the ability of schools to tailor their provision to individual talents and build centres of excellence.
But we are now moving to a new era in secondary school development.
The fierce battle between supporters of a rigid form of selection at the age of 11 and those who believed in schools that were fully inclusive and gave equal opportunities to pupils regardless of ability is largely resolved, apart from some voices on the far right. People do not want to go back to rigid selection at 11. They know that opportunity for all is the only fair way to educate and also that, in the modern economy, it is disastrous to limit high quality education to the top twenty per cent.
Schools have been adapting to meet this imperative. Expectations of pupils are rising steadily. Our best schools - including some in challenging areas - now achieve good qualifications for the great majority of their pupils.
As for school system, head teachers have rightly become chief executives of their schools, with the powers, budgets and accountability needed to do the job.
Local authorities have an important role in improving the management of weak schools and in providing services in areas such as special educational needs, but they are no substitute for effective front-line leadership. It is also abundantly clear from the experience of specialist schools, and other schools with a distinctive ethos including church schools, that schools with a strong sense of individual character and community responsibility are at an advantage, and tend to foster these same qualities in their pupils.
In all these respects, our best schools have moved decisively to a post-comprehensive argument. They take inclusion and equality of opportunity for granted, but are highly flexible in the ways they meet them. They are not afraid to be different or distinct. They offer greater diversity and choice. They are focused resolutely on individual achievement, individual empowerment, tailoring their provision to the full range of aptitudes and abilities. And with the increasing investment we are putting into new technology, they are exploiting the potential of ICT not only as a teaching tool, but as an individual learning resource inside and outside the classroom, inside and outside the school day.
Our task is to bring the secondary system as a whole into this new era, and to challenge our best schools to strive higher still.
Above all, we intend to bring out into the open and make coherent the development towards schools that are not uniform in character but have, each of them, a distinctive mission, ethos and purpose. We want to make diversity not the exception but the hallmark of secondary education.
Parents should know, whatever their background or class, that their child is going to be educated to the fullest extent of their ability in schools where teaching is well rewarded and of a high standard, where the investment is there in buildings, books and computer equipment, where discipline is good and excellence for all is pursued with a true sense of mission and purpose. Primary schools are being transformed. Secondary schools must come next.
I do not mean a free for all that simply places one good school in an area alongside many more that are only average, but each school able - within certain basic given principles - to choose its own path to excellence and be given the support to achieve it. With this freedom, will come greater flexibility in how schools are managed. And as schools reach high standards, so will the intervention of government - central and local - diminish.
There are therefore four key points in our strategy for modernising secondary education.
First, diversity must become the norm, not the exception, so that we move to a system of distinct and diverse schools, each with a centre of excellence. We will promote a radical extension of diversity. We intend to change the law to allow external sponsors - from the business and voluntary sectors, and from within the education world itself - to play a far greater role in the management of schools against demanding performance contracts.
If a successful school or education foundation wants and is able to take over the management of a weak school, the system should not only allow it - it should be strongly encouraged. If a successful school wants to engage with reputable external sponsors, this should not only be allowed - it should be strongly encouraged. We intend to see that it is.
We intend to provide for far more specialist schools and increase the range of specialisms. We also want to see an increase in the number of City Academies and schools sponsored by the churches and other faith groups.
Second, we will press ahead with a standards drive in the early secondary years, focused in particular on those pupils who arrive at secondary school without the basics of literacy and numeracy or who fail to make enough progress with them. The literacy and numeracy strategies will be extended and adapted for 11 to 14 year olds.
Third, we will build better vocational and academic routes for pupils beyond the age of 14. There will be new vocational GCSEs and greater curriculum flexibility. And we also want to see more challenging academic pathways, including acceleration to GCSE and a broader curriculum thereafter for the more able.
Fourth, we will extend the autonomy of all successful schools, cutting red tape further and giving head teachers greater management freedom provided they demonstrate success.
Underpinning these four elements are three others which apply across the whole of our education system - under fives, primary, secondary, and further and higher education.
We will invest steadily more in our teachers. We will continue with our step-change in funding for buildings, facilities and ICT. And we will provide the increase in resources necessary to deliver these objectives.
I have pledged the Government to increase the share of national income devoted to education over the next Parliament. This will give us the longest period of sustained growth in education spending in recent history.
Our aim is bold: to be the generation that educated all our people, not just the privileged few, to a high standard. That means accepting no complacency, no defeatism, no fatalism in any part of the school system.
I have talked to many teachers and headteachers since I became Prime Minister. I have gone to excellent schools and struggling schools. I am convinced that what makes a good school is the ethos created by a good headteacher. The will to succeed. The desire to lift every child. That is why I put such emphasis on diversity and distinctiveness. Every school I have seen that has sought to convert itself to a specialist school has gained confidence, improved results and given pupils greater pride in their school.
That is why I want every school to have the chance to take on a distinct identity. Specialist schools. Church schools. City academies. Schools with external sponsors. Foundation schools. Community schools with a centre of excellence. None of them run of the mill. All of them aiming to provide excellence. All of them giving children the best possible start in life.
There is no greater mission for this government or for this country.