The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech in Birmingham – 12 September 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech on education, held in Birmingham on Tuesday 12th September 1995.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to be here today and particularly pleased to have Gill Shephard with me, who has worked so closely with me on education matters and will, I hope, for many years to come. But I am also delighted to see you here today, because without your presence and without the work that you have done in recent years we would not have seen the advances and opportunities that are now opened by the grant maintained sector.

I promised five years ago, when I first became Prime Minister, that we would put education at the top of our priorities. Since then a great deal has been done. We have brought in national tests; we have published performance tables; we have introduced new vocational qualifications; we have given nearly one in three of young people the chance of a university education and soon we will begin to offer universal nursery education for four year olds. And that is by no means an inclusive list. But these are the building blocks of a revolution, they are the milestones on the road to making British children the best educated in the world, and that is our intention.

This morning I want to share with you just a few of the next moves forward. It won’t be a comprehensive list, there will be more to come in the weeks and in the months ahead. But I do have today a number of quite specific announcements to make, and I will come to those in a few moments. But I want to say a word first about some of the philosophy behind these changes.

I am a Conservative by instinct. And what I mean by that is that I seek to conserve the best of what we have and then to build upon it. So I emphatically do not seek changes in education for their own sake. I am only interested in changes which improve the quality of education, provide new opportunity for children and expand choice for parents and pupils. Quality, opportunity, choice – those are the measures against which we must assess our changes.

If we want what I once called the best for every child and the best from every child – and we do – then we have to banish the second rate and the slipshod from the system. It is not acceptable to live with it, we need to seek to change it. And nothing less will do because I believe we have both an economic and a social imperative to provide the best education we can.

Economically – economically the case is self-evident. If children in our schools in the United Kingdom aren’t learning the fundamentals as well as children elsewhere, then this country will slip behind, and that is true not only of academic education but it is true of the vocational education as well. And no-one should doubt the commitment I feel to reversing this country’s historic weakness in vocational education, nor the determination which Gill and I share to make the new vocational qualifications work, not by glossing over the problems which do exist in some areas, but by rooting them out, by rooting them out and instilling high quality courses with more rigorous testing and external marking which will help young children build this country’s strength.

We, and I speak of Gill and I, but the government as a whole, see education as much, much more than an apprenticeship to domestic, industrial and commercial life. It is, in its generality, about full lives for our people, lives whose course is so often plotted by what they learn, or fail to learn, during their years at school.

And that is why I believe there is a social imperative to education as well. It is about awaking curiosity in young minds, it is about the joy of learning that affords security in a shifting world, that opens up life long interests and hobbies, as well as careers. We may live these days in a pretty cynical world, at least it sometimes seems that way. But there is a great deal of idealism in the young. They want to make their mark on that world and they want to make it a better place.

I believe we should help them to achieve that. A broad education isn’t, and must not ever become, the private property of a social elite. I believe it is the birthright of every small bewildered child that walks into school with a shiny morning face to have the opportunity to have their horizons stretched, whether they come from inner city or from leafy suburb. Our children are made of the same clay, they have the same hopes, the same potential, the same rights to be challenged and to be inspired. And it is for those reasons that I believe in the importance of good education. And now I want to turn to some – some – of what we propose to do about it.

Let me turn firstly to standards. At the moment there is a lively and healthy debate about educational standards. Raising standards requires three things: first, a consistent body of knowledge, fixed points against which young people can be tested; second, high quality instruction because so much depends upon the leadership provided by the individual Head and upon the classroom skills of the individual teacher; and third, the right mechanisms to help good teachers do their job to the very best of their ability.

I want to deal with each of those in turn. The single most important of fixed points for our children is the integrity of our public examinations. Our children and their teachers work immensely hard to get good results. I believe it must be hugely demoralising for them to be told, as year after year they so often are told, that marking standards, or the rigour of the exam papers, are not what once they were. So we must find the truth of this. I, for one, warmly welcome the beady eye that Gillian has asked the Chief Inspector and Ron Dearing to cast over exam board results and GCE and A’ Level standards over time. The quality and the reputation of our education is important. I have fought against inflation in prices, I will fight with equal vigour any inflation in examination grades. If our reviews of exam results show that any standard has slipped, we will take action to require SCA to deal with that and to require the examining board to restore it.

Media attention has focused, as usual, on the results achieved by the million pupils who sat GCSE and A’ Levels this year. But in fact a far larger test also took place this summer. Nearly 2 million pupils took part in the statutory tests at 7, 11 and 14 in maths, English and science. For many of those children it will have been the first formal test they have sat. For many teachers as well, these would have been the first statutory tests that they have administered. It was a huge operation. Some commentators predicted that it would be chaos, but it wasn’t. The fact that it took place so smoothly is a big achievement and I would like to express my thanks to all those teachers, those here and the many not here today, who made that possible.

We now expect these tests to bed down as a routine part of school education, running right the way through from the early stages of reading, writing and sums, to the tests which begin to prepare our young people for GCSE. Our plans for nursery education will give those early stages of literacy and numeracy a big push. Universal provision of pre-school education for 4 year olds, with a clear statement of what we aim for children to have learnt, will for the first time give us a clear basis of measuring the child’s progress in the key skills of literacy and numeracy as they go through school.

The Schools Curriculum Authority yesterday launched their consultation on this. When it is in place we will at last have a sensible basis for simple base-line testing at the start of primary school which will put in place the foundation stone I wish to see for testing at all the key stages in school life. Tests and performance tables will measure standards, help force those standards up. They will also provide information for parents who are being allowed back into the secret garden that I fear had grown up in all too many of our schools.

The national results that we will publish this winter will, for the first time, enable all parents to see how well their child, and their child’s school, is doing against the national average. And those whose child is about to start school can compare how different primaries perform.

Those tests are the raw data that tell us about standards. But they need to be backed up. Inspection is a key element in ensuring that they are acted upon, and I am determined that they will be. So I am very pleased to say today that OFSTED will, this autumn, be inspecting the teaching of reading in the three boroughs which get some of the poorest results at the end of compulsory schooling. And from now on inspections will increasingly focus on those authorities or schools where standards are poor. Those responsible need not be surprised if an Inspector calls.

Raising standards, raising quality in County schools is, or should be, one of the main functions of a Local Education Authority. I can tell you today that the Inspectorate will, over the coming year, be reporting on what LEAs are actually doing about this and how effective they are at it.

The nature of school inspections is also changing. Too often in the past inspections were the occasion for foisting a particular, often progressive, dogma on teachers. Those schools which cleave to academic standards and dared to use whole class teaching were too often branded as reactionary. Now it would be very easy to swing back completely the other way. I think that would be wrong. Done well, group work, even topic work, have their place in education. But so do whole class teaching and hard edged single subject teaching from 7 or 8 years old onwards. What matters is helping teachers to use the right mix at the right time.

So let me make clear today the policy that the Chief Inspector will be following. Inspections will in future focus more sharply and rigorously on what really matters to parents, the standard of pupil achievement and the quality of education provided. They will be less bureaucratic and less burdensome on the school. And the language in which the reports will be written will be good plain English, shorn of unintelligible educational jargon.

There is one other aspect of inspections that I can announce today. The performance of a school, or a subject department within a school, depends on the quality of each individual teacher within it. And yet until now Inspectors Reports cover only the performance of a school or a department as a whole. In future, they will be able to report direct to the Head where they have seen particularly good or bad teaching during an inspection. The Head has a right to this information. In future he or she will get this information after the inspection.

The second crucial element in raising standards is teachers themselves and I want an alliance with those people who teach. I know that many of the changes we have made have been challenging. We have asked a lot of teachers and we have not always got things right. The curriculum, for example, was overloaded, partly because of the zeal of the educators we put in charge. But we ought not to have let that happen. But we have now, with the help of teachers, largely put that right. So too with tests, we are now closer to what both of us want.

In those areas teachers are delivering. In return, they need to know that they have the support and backing of government. In ensuring discipline in schools, for example. Good classroom discipline is in the interests of every child. Most parents want to work with teachers to help their children become in turn polite, tolerant but enquiring adults. But some don’t. A small minority seem neither to know nor care about the harm their children do to themselves or to others around them. That is unfair on the rest. I know that many teachers are concerned at the uncertainty about their powers to impose sanctions on unruly behaviour if the child’s parents are indifferent, or even hostile, to what their child is doing. Schools are unsure that if they have a disruptive child in the class that they will get the help they need, when they need it, to sort the problem out. They fear that hard edged decisions to expel a wholly unmanageable, possibly violent, pupil could too easily be overturned on appeal.

Gillian Shephard and her officials are now engaged in discussions with teachers representatives about these real concerns on classroom discipline. Everyone here knows that none of these issues is straightforward. But I am determined that we will work with teachers to overcome these problems and as soon as we are able, which I expect to be soon, we will announce our plans for dealing with this problem.

Let me add one more thing on this subject. For those children who can’t, without disrupting their own and others’ education, stay in mainstream schools, there are special units operated by local authorities. The jury remains out on whether these are all effective. Personally, I believe that grant maintained schools could be empowered to run similar arrangements. At present there are practical and legal constraints which prevent you doing this, and I want to deal with that. Later this month Gillian will be inviting you in to agree with you what needs to be cleared out of the way and how it needs to be cleared out of the way. And if your good ideas need new legislative powers, we will ask Parliament to provide those powers for you.

Let me now turn to the third key element in raising the quality of Britain’s education. Last month I set out my ambition to press forward with self-government, independence for more and more state schools. Some criticised, saying standards mattered but not this narrow structural issue. Well I agree about standards. But standards can’t be raised in a vacuum, can’t be raised by rhetoric alone. I have set out this afternoon some practical steps to raise standards, but the right mechanisms are also a crucial means to that end. They are what enable Heads and classroom teachers to give of their best. And the liberating effect of independence within the state sector affects the whole atmosphere of the school. Better motivated staff mean better motivated pupils, and that means better results. And those of you who run self-governing schools know that.

As for others, they need look no further than the school I will be visiting this afternoon. Schoolheath is an inner city school. Many of its pupils come from less well off families. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals is nearly twice the average for Birmingham secondary schools. But one thing the parents do have in common is a passionate desire for good education for their children. And the proportion of those children achieving 5 or more top grades at GCSE has trebled since the school became self-governing. The proportion of pupils passing 5 or more GCSEs has risen from well below the Birmingham average to well above the Birmingham average.

The self-governing sector continues to grow. Twenty-six more schools became GM this month, including 3 special schools and the first independent schools to opt into the state sector. We promised that self-governing schools would be able to expand their provision if there were demand. That is now happening. Six new nursery classes at GM primary schools and 12 new Sixth Forms at secondary schools opened this month.

And it is against that background of success and expansion that I set out last month my ambition that all state schools should gain the benefits of becoming self-governing independent schools free to parents. That is no distant aspiration. Gillian Shephard and her department are now looking at the detail of the implications of this policy and the practical options for how we might bring it about. Work on this is proceeding rapidly and you can expect to hear more of this as soon as we are ready.

But in education of all areas we need to make sure we get it right. You were impatient for change, for freedom. We knew you would make a success of it in your schools. I am impatient for change as well, but we want that change to be with the minimum of disruption. In the interests of the current generation of children going through school, we must move forward at a measured pace.

Our opponents run too mutually exclusive arguments against self-government in schools. First, that this will destroy the wonderful services that LEAs provide; second, that since County schools get 85 percent of the budget delegated to them it is all a lot of fuss about nothing. Let me deal with each of those in turn.

Self-governing schools get from the taxpayer a grant that enables them to buy the services that LEAs get from the taxpayer to provide free to County schools. They are perfectly at liberty to continue to take all their services from the Local Education Authority. But they are also at liberty to shop around for the best deal and to invest what they save in extra teachers, more books, better facilities.

Let me give you one small example from a grant maintained primary school in Sussex which in its first year saved 10,000 pounds on pay-roll and administrative services from what the Council had charged. In a primary school in the first year, 10,000 pounds buys a fair few books for their pupils.

In short, where. LEA services are the best, self-governing schools will use them. If they are not the best, why should they be required to use them?

As for the argument that County schools get most of their budget anyway, this is at best a half truth. Last year LEAs took anything up to 15 percent off the top for central services before the school’s budget was even set. They then held back up to 15 percent more from individual schools for more central services. Many of those services are important and some are services which LEAs are required to fund themselves. But don’t let’s pretend that when LEAS hold back several hundred pounds per pupil, that self-governing status doesn’t make a difference to a grant maintained school.

So I want to do more now to make that difference for more and more of our children. Slowly, grudgingly, the Labour Party who voted and manoeuvred against every step of our reforms in the last 7 years, now say they accept much of our agenda. I welcome that, so far as it is true. They opposed testing – now they are in favour.

They opposed our curriculum – now they are in favour. They opposed inspections – now they are in favour. There is even a wild rumour that they might be warming up to the idea of streaming in schools. Well I hope in due course that they will abandon their hostility to wider parental choice to self-government in schools. But for the present, despite taking advantage of the education GM schools offer their children, they are still determined to deny those advantages to others. At heart, Labour are still hostile to the devolution of responsibility.

That same itch leads them to threaten the autonomy enjoyed by the church schools. They would break the mutual respect and historic partnership between Church and State in education. Out would go the majority of Church Governors, in would come Town Hall meddling in admission arrangements. I believe this is not just misguided but fundamentally wrong. Church schools should have a wide autonomy. Grant maintained status is the logical choice for many church schools, it enables them to enjoy every single advantage of being a church school with the benefits of self-government on top. Self-government is also a shorter step for church schools, as indeed for other voluntary aided schools. Their governing bodies already employ staff and have extensive responsibility for premises.

The process of gaining self-government is certainly thorough, but it is also complex, time consuming and, sadly, still at risk of black propaganda or worse on the part of some Councils. I don’t see why any school should have to face that, but least of all Church schools. They represent some of the oldest and best schools in the land. Their trustees and governors have huge and valued experience and parents already make a conscious choice to send their children there.

Many Church schools have already become grant maintained. More wish to. So Gillian will next month be consulting about the option of a fast track route to full self-governing status. If a school’s governors, with the prime interests of parents at heart, and the trustees representing the Church’s interest, agree on moving to self-government, then they should be able to take that step simply and speedily. Subject to consultation, we will introduce legislation to enable that in the next year.

When last month I spoke of independent self-governing schools, I meant precisely that. Over the years, we have allowed too much regulation to creep back in. Well we propose to change that. Let me tell you how Gillian and I propose to start. First, that collection of rules on finance, monitoring and reporting that you know as the Rainbow Pack. I can see you are familiar with it. I can see you have no great affection for it. Too much of this is drafted as if the weakest and least experienced self-governing schools were the norm. Wrong. If a school is inexperienced then special attention should be given to that school. But it should not be used as an excuse to prescribe in minute, mind-boggling detail how all self-governing schools should conduct themselves. We are now focusing on just two things: a proper set of audited accounts annually; and just enough information quarterly for the funding agency to meet its accountability to Parliament that public money is being used for the purposes for which it has been voted. In short, two primary colours, not the whole spectrum of the rainbow. And if there is any further simplification you think we can do, I am very ready to listen and if you persuade me I am very ready to introduce it, with Gillian’s full backing.

I also want you to have greater freedom to expand and provide new facilities to meet demand. I can confirm to you today that we will shortly introduce legislation to enable you to undertake commercial borrowing, bringing you into line with colleges and universities. At present you can sell also surplus assets, with the expectation of keeping one-half of the proceeds. That is fine as far as it goes. But if a self-governing school wants to sell scattered properties to concentrate on one site, it is not much use if you have to surrender half the proceeds before you start. So that will change. I can tell you today that as from next April you will be able to retain the full proceeds of any such disposals.

Next, admissions policy. I know you are concerned about the way in which your admission arrangements are scrutinised. Some of you have found that when you applied for grant maintained status, admission arrangements that you had operated successfully in the local educational sector were then called into question when you became a grant maintained school. And I also understand your irritation as self-governing schools at having to apply to the DFE for any change, however minor, in your admission arrangements and then sometimes being invited to make changes that you did not yourselves ask for when you applied. You have made your schools the success they are. You have made more parents wish to send their children to your schools. I see no reason why self-governing schools should not decide their own policy on over subscription, nor about how you maintain the ethos of your school.

The current rules fossilise the character of schools instead of allowing them freedom to develop and change to meet new demands. I am therefore announcing a review of these procedures today, along with related aspects of the circular which sets out the current arrangements. I want to ensure that we end up with a substantial expansion of your freedom to make sensible choices between pupils in the way that you believe is best for your school.

Moreover, if a school and parents conclude, for example, that it would be better going towards single sex rather than co-educational, then I can tell you today that Gill Shephard will look sympathetically at that request. we both, Gill and I, want that review completed quickly so that you can take advantage of the changes as soon as possible.

Last but not least, there is the issue of the funding formula. I know that some among you are worried that the present arrangements allow Local Authorities to manipulate the formula to your disadvantage. We have a common funding formula for grant maintained schools in 22 areas which frees them from financial ties to the local authority. It is not perfect and no funding formula ever is. The answer in the longer term is a national funding formula, but that merits a PhD thesis in its own right. Gill Shephard’s department and the Funding Agency for Schools are now working upon it. We want to arrive at a formula which is fair, simple and as clear as possible. It will need careful thought and we are very ready to listen to your views and to individual representations, but that work has begun and that work will be carried through.

Let me summarise. Improving standards, extending choice, opening opportunity for all – these are our priorities as we continually seek to improve the quality of Britain’s education.

Let me summarise the steps I have set out today towards that. Rigorous public examinations whose integrity will remain the gold standard in education. Testing throughout school life in the essentials that children will need as adults. Inspection which ensures that test results are acted upon, that focuses on where results most need to improve and on what really happens in the individual classroom. A teaching profession that is confident of government support to secure orderly well mannered schools. Real freedom for schools to run themselves, to expand and to meet the wishes of parents as they think best.

I have dealt today with only some of the issues that effect our schools. There are other important areas – teacher training; homework; the expansion of popular schools; and beyond schools, standards in our universities. On all of these, further announcements will come in the weeks and months ahead. Nor is today’s instalment anything like the final word in the move towards full self-government for our schools.

Much of what I have covered today is the nitty gritty of standards and of self-government. These are important because it is in such detail that the daily lives of our children are shaped. But detail should never cloud from our eyes the vision of what we are trying to achieve. Our children will make the world in which we grow old. Our contract with them is a contract between the generations and our obligation is to provide them with the best education we can. I promise you, it is an obligation we intend to fulfil.