The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech on Education to Centre for Policy Studies – 3 July 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made to the Centre for Policy Studies at the Cafe Royal in London on Wednesday 3rd July 1991.



Some of you may wonder why I have selected the theme of education today. There are so many other developments, not least in Europe, preoccupying Parliament and public. But I make no apology. As you know, education is at the top of our agenda for the 1990s. As a matter of principle – and as a matter of practical need. For every year it becomes clearer that the strength of the British people will depend on their skills.

You may say it was ever thus. Disraeli declared that the fate of the country depended on education, and almost every subsequent prime minister has echoed that sentiment. But it only seems to galvanise us into action just about every 30 or 40 years. The 1870 Education Act established universal education in England and Wales. Balfour’s Education Act came in 1902, and Butler’s Act in 1944. Now we are embarked on an even more radical series of reforms, which began in the 1980s and are continuing into the 1990s.

Some people might feel tempted to say: “Look: we’re not daft. We know about the importance of education. We knew there was a lot to be done. But you’ve been in power for over a decade. Why haven’t you done it?”

Politicians are sometimes accused of not answering the question.

Be that as it may. In this case, I am prepared to be generous.

I will give you not just one answer – but four.

The first is that the problems we are grappling with today go back a long time. For all our efforts to catch up over the past century or so, most historians would agree on one thing. The origins of our nation’s insufficient regard for education, and particularly education for work, lie deep in our culture.

On the one hand, we were suspicious of brain power. It made the squirearchy uncomfortable. Only in Britain could it have been thought a defect to be “too clever by half” – the epithet applied, most famously, to the late lain Macleod.

This ancient prejudice was then reinforced by the left, with its mania for equality. Equality not of opportunity, but of outcome. This was a mania that condemned children to fall short of their potential; that treated them as if they were identical – or must be made so. A mania that undermined common sense values in schools, rejected proven teaching methods, debased standards – or disposed of them altogether. A canker in our education system which spread from the Sixties on, and deprived great cohorts of our children of the opportunities they deserved. I, for one, cannot find it easy to forgive the Left for that.

On the other hand, we have inherited an almost equal disdain for vocational training – a superior attitude to industry, and a mild contempt for the practical man and woman. Compare the status of the engineer in Germany and in Britain and you are half-way to understanding this side of the problem.

While respecting and enhancing academic values, we must infuse education with greater awareness of the needs of the economy. We are therefore tackling not one problem but two. It is not merely a matter of adjusting the curriculum, or restructuring institutions – important though those changes may be. We are changing a culture – and cultural changes take time.

My second answer is this. No one can say that we have not made a bold beginning. More has been done to modernise our education and training in the 1980s than in the previous three and a half decades since the second world war.

Let’s take, to begin with, the vocational side. Just remember for a moment where we started from.

In 1979, there was no requirement to teach science or technology in our schools. No National Curriculum to ensure that every pupil studied maths and science, up to a required level of attainment.

No imaginative schemes, such as the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, to bring business into contact with teachers and pupils. No City Technology Colleges, such as the superb Harris CTC at Norwood, which I visited this morning.

There were grant-maintained schools, such as the one I am looking forward to visiting later today. These are schools which have real responsibility for their own affairs. They will lever up standards by giving parents real choice, teachers real motivation, and pupils wider opportunities than ever before.

There were no Training and Enterprise Councils to link the worlds of education and work. No national training schemes. No coherent structure of high-level vocational qualifications; nothing to compare with the system of National Vocational Qualifications that the Government is presently engaged in streamlining.

And it was this Government that gave the polytechnics their independence. The results are plain. They have flourished. They have attracted ever greater levels of interest from highly-qualified students. And they have attracted praise for their work from all-corners.

In recognition of their success, we have – as you know – recently announced that we are removing the artificial “binary line” between universities and polytechnics. That will help to give the polys the status they deserve, not just in this country but in the rest of Europe. And I know they will not take it as a signal to imitate the universities, but as a vote of confidence in their own distinct and practical mission.

And then they ask what we have been doing, for the past 12 years!

My third point is this. In education Governments have been – in that fashionable phrase – largely confined to the role of enablers. We can direct a larger share of resources to education – and that we have done. In the 1980s, spending per school pupil trebled. Even after allowing for inflation, it rose by 40% in the decade.

But that could not guarantee higher standards. Government, parents, inspectors, examiners, employers – but most particularly, teachers – all have a part to play. The drive to raise standards in all our public services is moving forward under the banner of our Citizen’s Charter, whose principles will be unveiled later this month. I will return to its relevance to education in a moment.

The fourth and last part of my answer to that question on our Conservative record goes back, again, to our culture. For it would be a poor sort of country that abandoned interest in its past, in the race for technological expertise. A Conservative society is one that knows about and respects its roots, while having the self-confidence to embrace new ideas. A society that values learning for its own sake – as well as for its economic benefit.

Education is more than the acquisition of skills. The intrinsic worth of a trained mind was summed up by Aristotle with immortal conviction. “The life according to reason”, he wrote, “is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man.” A truth, perhaps, not universally acknowledged in the House of Commons.

We have therefore been engaged in the struggle to resist insidious attacks on literature and history in our schools. It is a struggle that must continue. That is why I attach great importance to the study of English. It is also why I am suspicious of the claim that this can be done with minimal regard to the structure of the language – or with only the most cursory acquaintance with pre-twentieth-century literature.

It is why I have resisted calls to scrap A-levels – though I understand the arguments for widening the curriculum, and we have acted on them. It is why I would like to see all those responsible, at all levels, insist on higher examination standards in arts subjects, as well as more directly vocational studies.

I say this not out of some romantic attachment to the past; but out of a conviction that past values and future needs complement each other. Those who argue that spelling should not be corrected ignore the world we live in, as well as the language we inherited. A world in which it matters to fill in a job application correctly. In which numeracy is a necessity. And in which vital export orders depend on the ability to communicate effectively, first in one’s own language and then in other people’s.

Our educational reforms have been driven by three interlocking ambitions. To raise standards. To widen choice. And to increase the accountability of the system to those who use and pay for it. These principles will drive our reforms forward in the 1990s, too. For there is still much to be done.

Too many youngsters reach 16 without any sense of where their education has been leading; without the motivation to take school learning forward into further education or training.

Too often teachers’ expectations of their pupils are too low. It is particularly disturbing to find that it is less able children who have suffered most from the zealous adoption of fashionable theories. It is they who have suffered from excessive reliance on mixed-ability teaching and from hostility to testing. And it is the least able who have most to lose from left-wing waste of precious education resources. There are, I fear, city education authorities employing more bureaucrats than teachers. And the shameful state of affairs in Lambeth speaks for itself.

To deliver higher standards, more choice and greater accountability in education will require a professional and highly-motivated teaching force. Teachers with the confidence to face rigorous and independent inspection, and to provide full information to parents about the results of their work. Let me say a little more about how we aim to bring that state of affairs about.

First, standards. The introduction of the National Curriculum has been the fundamental first step. It is providing – for the first time – a clear framework setting out what pupils should know, understand and be able to do, at each stage of their schooling.

This change is truly revolutionary. It requires the organised teaching of facts and skills. It provides a guarantee that science and technology will be taught in our primary schools; that history and geography will enjoy their rightful place in the syllabus; and that every pupil will have to study a foreign language for five years. It puts special emphasis on the fundamentals in maths and English.

But it needs to be implemented flexibly. The National Curriculum must be a framework, not a straitjacket. It must be a guide for teachers, not a substitute for good classroom teaching. We are introducing refinements as it is brought in. On one, in particular, I lay great importance: allowing some young people, after the age of 14, to specialise in technical subjects, as they are able to do in so many other European countries.

It is already clear that the National Curriculum has brought a new sense of purpose in schools up and down the country. At first the idea met with blind hostility in predictable quarters – and more understandable apprehension in others. But an impressive consensus has quickly emerged as to its value. Parents, teachers, employers and even our political opponents – winning the wooden spoon as always – agree that a great advance has been made.

But to set standards is not enough. In the interests of children, we need to know whether standards are being met. This requires regular assessment of their progress.

Let there be no doubt about the Government’s position. Tests are essential. And tests are here to stay. Of course, tests are not the be-all and end-all of education. We are not in the business of putting pressure on our children. But we must be able to measure their progress in an objective and regular manner.

Tests for seven year olds and eleven year olds must deal precisely with the core skills – the “three Rs”. We need to know where things are going wrong, at an early age – or we will never be able to put them right.

It is early days – and I readily accept that we may not have got the process right yet. Where it is wrong, we will change it. Testing must not dominate the classroom. It must not swamp schools in paperwork. Nor should it be driven by too theoretical an approach. We need to shift the emphasis towards shorter, standardised tests, which the whole class can take at one time.

We must also make sure that the established systems of testing older children maintain their value. This means addressing those criticisms of GCSE that give rise to a suspicion that standards are at risk.

It is clear that there is now far too much course work, project work and teacher assessment in GCSE. The remedy surely lies in getting GCSE back to being an externally assessed exam, which is predominantly written. I am attracted to the idea that for most subjects a maximum of 20 per cent of the marks should be obtainable from coursework. This, of course, is the sound principle we have recently proposed for A-levels.

And we must also ensure that GCSE is properly calibrated to challenge the most able. We short-change our brightest children if we devalue the currency of the exams they take.

The same principles apply to that higher benchmark of excellence – the A-level. If the transition from GCSE to A-levels is causing difficulties, we must level GCSE up, not lower A-level standards.

But it is equally vital to raise the esteem in which vocational qualifications are held. As you all know, the Government has set out radical proposals. These are designed to break down artificial barriers, which for too long have divided an academic education from a vocational one.

This is a crucial reform, and I am delighted by the very favourable reception that it has received. Challenging vocational qualifications are now being developed. The new diplomas announced in the White Paper will pull the two streams together, recording achievement in either or both, or in combinations of the two.

Providing a wider range of examinations, which lead to worthwhile qualifications, is a way of creating real choice in education. Choice and diversity are central to our aims. For uniformity is the curse of giant public services. The monolith must be broken up, and made more responsive to parents and pupils. I am glad to say the revolution is well under way.

– Next term, there will be 91 grant-maintained schools, and I am delighted to be told that there are many more ballots in the pipeline.

– Next term, we shall have 13 City Technology Colleges up and running. They are meeting head-on a demand for technical education, which as a country we have neglected for a century past.

– Under local management – pioneered in my own county, Cambridgeshire – schools are now in command of their own resources. By 1993 local authorities will be obliged to have delegated 85 per cent of their potential schools budget. I compliment those that have seen local management as an opportunity not a threat, and are above this target already.

– Go-ahead local authorities are busy innovating. Wandsworth, for example, is working to achieve the following choice of secondary schools: two City Technology Colleges, three “magnet” specialist schools, three voluntary-aided church schools and two grant-maintained schools. Lincolnshire, which has perhaps gone further than any other long-standing LEA to encourage schools to take advantage of independence, is also planning to sponsor its own CTC.

– In 1993 further education and sixth form colleges will follow polytechnics into freedom from local authority control.

– Last, but by no means least, there is the thriving independent sector, whose peaks of excellence set an example to the whole education system.

I see a special future for grant-maintained schools. I would like to see more of them in the Inner Cities. We need new institutions to break the mould of political extremism and bureaucratic inefficiency that too often characterises these areas. It is deprived children in the bad schools in the worst boroughs whom I most want the Government’s reforms to help.

In time I am quite sure that the grant-maintained concept will win hearts and minds in every community. But maybe something more needs to be done to prepare the ground.

I can therefore tell some further legislation is needed. We must ensure that the wishes of parents and governors are not thwarted by unreasonable behaviour on the part of education authorities.

We propose to smooth the path to grant-maintained status. Too many local authorities are spending too much on campaigns against applications for grant-maintained status. Some are even campaigning against the wishes of parents. So we will severely limit the amount of taxpayers’ money an education authority can spend on such campaigns. And we will reimburse governing bodies, up to the same limit, for their own campaign expenses.

Nor will this be all. We shall be putting forward a number of other measures to help the fledgling grant-maintained sector. Today I will single out but two. First, we will stop local authorities removing or disposing of a school’s assets while it is applying for grant-maintained status. And second, we will require primary schools to provide information about admission to all publicly-funded secondary schools, including grant-maintained schools.

We will also legislate to remove the technical and legal obstacles that stand in the way of those voluntary-aided schools that wish to become City Technology Colleges.

We will go one step further, creating another new kind of school. We will enable existing schools to transform themselves into grant-maintained technology colleges. These will incorporate the key characteristics of CTCs – a focus on technical education, supported by private sector sponsors.

Which leads me back – again – to accountability. Accountability, first and foremost, to parents. For what the CTCs have shown plainly is just how frustrated many thousands of parents are in their search for excellence. There have been over 8000 applications for the 2600 places available at CTCs this September. Parents know what is on offer: high standards of work, attendance and aspiration. The CTCs can give a good account of themselves to parents – and they do. At the Harris CTC, for example, I’m told that 2000 turned up for a prospective parents’ evening.

We have sought to make room for parents within the cosy relationship between local education authorities, their schools and their advisers and inspectors. Governors and heads have been given the freedom to run their own schools, but there must be parents on the governing body. Schools now have the freedom to break away altogether from the local authority if they wish – but it is votes of parents which decide the matter.

I have never yet come across parents who did not want to know how their children are doing at school both in relation to their own ability and in relation to the rest of the class. But far too many have the devil’s own job finding out. And the country needs to know how schools as a whole are doing. Parents and taxpayers – parents who are also taxpayers – have a common interest in knowing what is being achieved in our schools.

So as part of our plans for the Citizen’s Charter – we will be obliging schools to provide better and more accessible information about their performance. Exam and test results, of course. And – from next term – information on attendance rates, a change which I regard as long overdue. But I want to see more: for example, information about numbers staying on at 16. I also want to turn the school inspector into the parent’s friend. Too much of the valuable information in inspectors’ reports is effectively hidden from those who most need to know. As part of our Citizen’s Charter reforms, we intend to increase the independence – and openness – of the inspection process.

All this is part of our long-standing intent to empower parents within the education system, so they can make better-informed choices about what is best for their children. But – as no-one knows better than parents – the quality of education depends on the quality and commitment of our teachers.

My main message to teachers is simple, but important. We wouldn’t be doing half what we are doing if we did not have a high regard for the profession. I have made it very plain that I do. Indeed, I married into it. But before anybody says that the proof of the pudding lies in the pay, let me remind you of two central decisions taken since I became Prime Minister. The first was the Government’s decision to honour in full, during the course of this year, the recent pay award – at a time when pay settlements in the rest of the economy were coming down to much lower figures. And the second was the decision to establish a Pay Review Body for teachers, intended to provide peace in the classroom and fair pay for teachers for many years to come.

We must also ensure they have the best training. We are now looking hard at teacher training. The course criteria are now much tighter than they were. Much less theory. Much more practice. All teachers must now have direct classroom experience and a proper grounding in the basic subjects. They must be able to recognise the problems of children with special learning difficulties. This is good progress.

We want now to see more of the training based in school. Teachers must have the training they need, not what the colleges think they ought to have. Over 600 mostly older teachers have now been licensed to teach -without having to go back to college. By this autumn almost 1,000 teachers will be in the classroom, through the Articled Teacher Scheme. This is more progress. We need also to make it much easier than it is now for older people to qualify as teachers, through part and full-time training courses which build on their life experience rather than being identical to the courses which are offered to school leavers.

The changes I have outlined – as well as the ones still to come – have of course thrown a large burden on schools. There are, and will be, teething troubles. But the critics of government action cannot have it all ways at once. The accusation that we have not done enough about education sits ill with the complaint that too much is happening.

All change is, of course, unsettling. And I have said enough today to make it plain that we are at a time of enormous change – change in both the forms and ambitions of our education system. But the best teachers will, I know, recognise the opportunities this offers.

I have barely touched today on higher education, which is the area of our education system where expansion is most spectacular – and we have a great story to tell. Our university and polytechnic courses are admired around the world. Our academic community has achieved a great deal in teaching, scholarship and research. Many of you here are well-placed to know that. And the proportion of our young people benefitting from higher education is rising sharply. In 1979 it was 1 in 8 of our 18 and 19 year olds. It is now better than 1 in 5, and on current trends will be approaching 1 in 3 by the year 2000.

This success story prompts me to emphasise one important and topical point. An integral part of the single European market is mutual recognition of qualifications and diplomas. Much progress has already been made on this. The ability of young people to make use of their qualifications throughout Europe will play a key role in fostering an unforced sense of closer European identity. The esteem in which our higher education is held gives us pole position in this process and I intend to keep it that way.

The ambitions I have shared with you today can only sketch the outline of the system we may see by the year 2000. For this time, the pattern of reform is being coloured in by millions of individual choices.

This means parents’ choices of the kind of education they want for their children. Teenagers’ choices of courses and qualifications. School leavers’ choices of further education or training, provided by the new credits we are offering them – “smart cards” to spend on training as they see fit. And wide choice in a rapidly expanding, newly united higher education sector.

The outcome will not, as too often in the past, depend entirely on government decree. So it cannot be predicted with the same certainty. But three consequences can be forecast with confidence.

First, with higher standards and greater accountability in education, teaching is set to be one of the most challenging careers of the decade. Nothing less than the best will do – and the best can be sure they will be satisfactorily rewarded. Secondly, education will be a growth industry. Our appetite for good quality education expands with affluence and international competition. And finally, carrying through the reform of education will be a challenging task for the Government. I am privileged to lead in the 1990s. It is a challenge we accept with enthusiasm.