I am delighted to be with you this morning.
I'm told that I am the first Prime Minister ever to address a teachers' union conference. This is one measure of our commitment to working in partnership. I hope I'm not the last.
I am here because the government's programme for education, and the nation's search for a world class education system, stands or falls on the quality of our teachers and headteachers.
Teachers are the change-makers of modern society. In partnership with parents, you are the people who shape the skills, prospects and character of our young people. No other profession wields that power. In your hands lies the task of achieving the transformation in educational standards which is our single most urgent challenge as a nation.
To succeed, there must be strong unity of purpose between government and the profession. As a government it is our job to set priorities, based on the commitments the country elected us to deliver. But it is vital that these are priorities you share; and that we take full account of the practical issues you confront in raising standards school by school.
I want therefore to take stock of the challenge we face. I want to explain why education is so central to our purpose as a government; and to explain our strategy, in terms both of investment and reform, for creating a truly world-class education system.
My starting point is simple. It is the conviction that the fundamental failure of British government in the 20th century has been a failure to attach sufficient importance to public education for the broad majority of the people.
Governments have under-invested, under-expected, and under-achieved.
We have been good at educating an elite at the top. But throughout the century the imperative to raise standards and aspirations for the many in line with the best has been neglected.
Average standards have been far too low. Variation between the best and worst has been far too great. And a long tail of poor achievers, a large proportion not even reaching basic competence in literacy and numeracy after eleven years of compulsory schooling, has consistently marked us out from our leading economic competitors.
The recent Moser report spelt out the consequences. One in five adults functionally illiterate - meaning, in real life, seven million adults unable to find the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Pages. An even higher proportion, four in ten, unable to manage basic arithmetic.
Why has this happened? Largely, I believe, because of deep complacency on the part of successive governments. Even on the Left, the language of equal opportunities too often went hand in hand with an acceptance of poor standards for the majority, on the unspoken assumption that most school-leavers would go naturally into unskilled jobs - or as women, be outside the workforce - and in either case need only basic qualifications, if any.
This was always a misplaced view. In 1999, it is the flawed analysis of a world which has vanished forever.
It's not just that manual jobs have declined. The rise of the global economy, with fewer and fewer barriers to mobility, has changed the whole basis on which nations secure their prosperity. Sector by sector, countries compete on the quality and flexibility of their skill base. By flexibility, I mean the capacity of people to acquire new skills, fast, throughout their careers, building on a high level of general education acquired at school.
When I say that there is no greater social injustice than to give a child a poor education, I mean it absolutely literally. A world class education system is the indispensable condition for creating a fair and prosperous society for the next century.
I also believe that now is a unique opportunity to act.
Never before have we possessed, at the same time, a national quest for change; a government committed to state education, ready to invest significantly extra money year on year; and a programme of educational reform with huge support, not just in schools, but from parents, employers, the wider public and the media.
If we fail to seize this opportunity to create a world-class system, we betray our generation and those that follow.
That means schools with standards that match or exceed the best internationally. It means eliminating the tail of non-achievers, so that all young people leave the education system with the skills to find a good job and a capacity for lifelong learning. It means schools which develop in young people not just academic success, but care, compassion and confidence.
I know this is a vision you share. I know too that our best schools achieve all these things. The challenge is to ensure that all schools are improving, excellent or both, in a world where demands are increasing year by year.
Our strategy is one of sustained investment driving modernisation and higher standards.
Let me be frank about the position on funding. Just as standards can't be transformed overnight, nor can decades of under-investment.
The extra 19 billion we are investing over the next three years is a step-change in funding. But we are only at the beginning of year one of this three-year programme. And much of the money is rightly earmarked for specific priorities - smaller class sizes for five to seven year-olds, the New Deal for Schools, support for the literacy and numeracy strategies, the National Grid for Learning, and so on.
Our commitment is to ensure, at every stage, that policies to promote higher standards go forward with the investment needed to support them.
So let me spell out our five key priorities, and where we stand in regard to them.
First, a step-change in investment in school infrastructure.
Second, a dramatic increase in the proportion of children leaving primary school with the skills to succeed in life, particularly literacy and numeracy. Hence the literacy and numeracy strategies, our two most critical education policies of this Parliament; and the significant extension of under-five provision, to ensure that all children are ready to learn when they start school.
Third, modernisation of comprehensive schools so that they provide better for children of different abilities, particularly in the inner-cities and other areas where standards are too often too low;
Fourth, wholesale devolution of power and budgets to schools. Intervention by LEAs should take place only when schools are not succeeding on their own account, and everyone - LEAs as much as schools - must be accountable for their standards.
And fifth, more effective leadership in our schools, and raise the status of teaching to the forefront of Britain's professions.
So how do we stand?
On infrastructure, more than 7,000 schools have won much-needed funding from the new deal for schools. We are rapidly achieving our class size pledge for five, six and seven-year-olds, and will have implemented it on time and in full by 2001. Our investment in school books has enabled schools to buy an extra 23 million books.
New technology is a critical priority, and more than 1 billion is being invested in ICT over the next three years. There are already a million hits a week on the National Grid for Learning, but we have only just got started. By 2002 every school will be connected to the Grid, and new technology will be as central to learning as the textbook and the blackboard. The Grid will give teachers a huge new resource for training, information, guidance and curriculum.
Infrastructure is no use if children are not ready to learn.
For under-fives, the new Surestart programme is putting in place health and education support for the parents of 0-3 year olds. Nursery places have been extended to all four-year-olds whose parents want them, and from this September will be offered to a further 50,000 three-year-olds.
But most important of all are the national literacy and numeracy strategies, whose objective is nothing less than the abolition of poor reading, writing and maths skills among the generation of tomorrow.
I am well aware of the demands these strategies have made of you. And I would like to thank you and your staff wholeheartedly for the skill and energy you have devoted to implementing the literacy strategy and preparing for the numeracy strategy.
The literacy and numeracy strategies are partnership at its best: government investing in best practice and spreading it nationwide, tied to demanding but achievable targets; the profession responding with commitment and enthusiasm to make it a success.
Part of the achievement has been the involvement of parents. A recent poll showed that 94 per cent of parents support the literacy hour, and two-thirds now read to their children every day. The message on literacy and numeracy is getting into every home and every community.
But we have more to do. The Government is providing further support for literacy training and recruiting extra classroom assistants to enhance teaching skills, particularly in grammar, spelling and the all-important phonics. We will provide intensive support, which I know has been successful this year, to a further 2,000 schools, taking the total to 5,000 - one in four of all primaries.
We are looking to you to introduce the daily maths lesson nationwide from this September, backed by a 55 million investment in training and support for all teachers. And through Maths Year 2000, which I launched in April with David Blunkett and Carol Vorderman, we will promote numeracy as we have literacy.
At secondary level, our objective is to tackle a culture of low aspirations and standards that pervades too much of the system. This is particularly true in the largest cities, where the challenges are greatest but so too is the need. City by city there are schools which achieve spectacularly. But too many do not.
It is important to provide effective support for weak and failing schools. We are also taking forward Excellence in Cities, a radical programme for the six largest cities, giving schools the tools to provide better for pupils of all abilities, from those with learning difficulties to the very able and talented who become no less excluded if given inadequate support and opportunity.
I know that these strategies put pressure on you. They put pressure on all of us - not least David Blunkett and me, with our commitment to ambitious national targets. And rightly so, for a key modernising principle of this government is that we are all accountable.
LEAs too are being made more accountable. That's why for the first time they are being inspected and subject to penalties for under-performance. Why higher standards are the be-all and end-all of their role. And why we will not hesitate to act decisively in cases of LEA failure, and apply the same rigorous standards to private contractors as we expect of public providers.
Our cardinal principle is that LEAs should intervene in inverse proportion to success. The prime responsibility for improving schools lies with schools themselves - which is why LEAs should get as much money as possible out of central bureaucracy and into your schools.
We aren't, frankly, satisfied that enough LEAs are doing this. David Blunkett is about to publish league tables of LEA central spending. Next year he will not hesitate to use his new powers to cap bureaucracy in LEAs which are unjustifiably holding back resources from schools.
We are putting behind us a situation where everyone blamed someone else for poor performance but no-one took responsibility themselves; and replacing it with one where we all accept our role in making things better.
I hardly need tell this conference that leadership is critical to effective schools.
I have never yet visited a good school with a weak head. Effective heads give heart and direction to their school. They inspire their pupils; generate trust and ambition in the staff room; command the respect of parents; set the parameters for colleagues to achieve success in the classroom and beyond.
This is as true of the small primary school with half a dozen staff as of the large comprehensives in trouble. The challenges vary, but the importance of the head in the life of the school is the same.
You are leading a quiet revolution. Until a few years ago if you asked the question, "who runs the education system?", the typical answer was "local education authority officials". Now the answer is "headteachers, school by school".
But we under no illusion as to the scale of the task that you as headteachers face in leading and managing your schools. Central to the Green Paper is greater investment in training, support and rewards for heads and those aspiring to headship.
Managing a school is as least as great a challenge as running a company. Yet for too long we accepted that chief executives had their MBAs and intensive management and leadership programmes, while headteachers arrived on the first of September with just the keys to the office and a few tips from their predecessor, if they were lucky.
We are investing to provide a national system of management and leadership training for school leaders, something I know you strongly support.
The DfEE has already started to put a proper training regime in place. Good progress has been made, but we are keen to see improvements, particularly to ensure that training makes better use of successful serving heads.
In the Green Paper we proposed to establish a National College for School Leadership. This proposal has attracted wide enthusiasm, as an opportunity to create a single focus for the training and development of headteachers.
We are today publishing the prospectus for the new college - a 10m centre, with residential facilities and state-of-the-art ICT to spread its work nationally and internationally. The college will open next year, and we will begin immediately to seek a founding director and partners to take the college forward.
New technology will be critical. The sheer scale of the college's audience, with 24,000 serving heads, probably twice that number aspiring to headship and many more in management positions, means that a major part of its operations must be available as a virtual college on the Internet.
The college will develop leadership and management skills, taking on responsibility for the full range of school leadership courses. We also intend it to develop a strong international dimension, through placements and ICT, enabling school leaders in this country to build overseas links and set their work in a far wider context.
I know that some other aspects of the teaching Green Paper have been controversial.
I will come to some of the issues in a moment. But let me start with the big picture, which is so important to understanding the challenge we face together.
The government's objective is simple but highly ambitious. It is to restore teaching to its rightful place as one of Britain's foremost professions - an ambition I believe we all share.
Just as the education system has been neglected by governments for decades, so too the teaching profession has been undervalued, under-resourced, and has suffered accordingly in reputation and self-esteem. While this has happened, the demand for teachers, and the demands on teachers, have risen sharply, making it harder and harder to reverse the decline.
We have very many excellent teachers and headteachers. I meet them week after week in my visits to schools. But we need more of them - far more. And this means recognising, frankly, the need for a step change in the reputation, rewards and image of teaching, raising it to the status of other professions such as medicine and law, which are natural choices for our most able and ambitious graduates. Teaching has this status in many other countries. There is no good reason why it shouldn't have it here too.
It is not a simplistic case of teachers catching up with the rest. All professions are under pressure, in the face of growing public demands for greater accountability and better performance.
But it would be a fatal error to under-estimate the scale of the challenge. Take London University's Imperial College, one of our foremost science and technology universities. 1,450 students graduated from Imperial last year. Fewer than 20, 1.5% of the total, went on to teacher training.
I am delighted to hear that teacher training applications for science and maths have risen sharply this year - 27% up in the case of maths graduates - through the new 5,000 bursary scheme. This is excellent news, and demonstrates what can be achieved.
But it is only a first step. And of course, it is not just the recruitment of new teachers that concerns us. It is also providing better rewards, and proper incentives, to encourage excellence across the whole profession - both for successful school leaders and for successful classroom teachers who don't want to go up the management ladder to get higher pay and recognition.
The Green Paper is intended to meet these objectives. We remain open to ideas for improvements, and I welcome the fact that ministers are engaged in constructive discussions with your association and others on the practical issues which are critical to successful reform.
But let us be clear about what is on offer. This is something for something. In return for proper assessment, we are proposing a significant pay increase for a large proportion of the profession. Everyone will get the annual pay award, but significant extra money will be available for those who excel. This is not a case of new obligations being imposed for no extra reward.
On the contrary, teachers who pass the new threshold stand to gain 2,000 - 2,000 which would not be available through the annual pay increase. We are providing this investment because we are convinced that it is right to make it possible for good teachers to gain higher rewards in recognition of their performance. This already happens to a large extent through promotions and responsibility points. We all know that teachers of equivalent years' service aren't all paid the same, or anything like it.
Our intention is simply that there should be a proper, formal assessment of the achievements of teachers who reach the top of the normal pay scale and wish to go higher. And that annual appraisal, as applies in virtually every other profession, should become part of the system, including an assessment of the progress made by pupils. After all, there is nothing that matters more to schools than the quality of teaching and the achievement of pupils.
In return we stand ready to make a massive new investment in the teaching profession - 1 billion over two years, covering not just pay but staff development, training, and the whole infrastructure of the profession.
Many of you are managers of school budgets. You know only too well the competing pressure for resources and the absolute requirement to be able to justify proposed expenditure against competing demands.
We are proposing money for modernisation - serious investment in return for necessary reform. And I am speaking absolutely honestly in saying that the government, supported by the wider public, cannot and will not proceed without that fair exchange.
Over the next three years education will get the biggest spending increase in history.
It took a host of hard decisions to make this investment available. I am determined that as a government we will continue to make the hard choices necessary to give education the priority it deserves. But the new investment must, at every stage, be for modernisation and higher standards.
I began by declaring my - our - aspiration for Britain to build a world-class education system for the next century. People ask me, "how will you know when you have succeeded?" - My reply is simple. "We will have succeeded when the achievements of our children match the passion of our pronouncements."
There is never any point in willing the ends without a commitment to the means to achieve them. I earnestly hope we share that same commitment, and can move forward in partnership to build the education system Britain deserves.