Roald Dahl once said, “If I had my way, I'd remove January from the calendar altogether and have an extra July instead.”
Generally, I’d be inclined to agree with him. But not this January.
This January is different. As you head back to your schools and colleges, ready for the new term ahead, I wanted to share some of my excitement about why.
After the turbulence of the past few months, we are about to begin 2020 with a renewed sense of purpose. The government has a clear mandate from the country to take forward the reforms we campaigned on, and that is what we are going to do.
The new government has a packed agenda, and education is at the heart of it.
It is an agenda that will not only drive change at a social level, but change lives on a personal one – not just for the youngest children, but right up to the most senior members of our communities.
Because education is open-ended, it’s there for the duration, for every one of us.
I know that you have already been working hard to bring many of our reforms to life. And I know that this hasn’t always been easy.
Transforming the education system is not a quick fix and we won’t achieve it overnight. But since 2010 we’ve seen that we’re on track.
Self-belief and ambition
Take the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scores, for example, which came out in early December. These give participating countries a chance to see how their pupils compare by international standards in reading, maths and science.
We have gone up from 22nd to 14th in reading, up to 18th from 27th in maths, and a one-place rise from 15th to 14th in science.
This is tremendous progress, for which teachers should feel rightly proud. But what we can’t do is sit back and think, “Job done.” There are 13 countries above us in reading, after all, which means we still have some way to go.
We must redouble our efforts and start this brand-new decade with a brand-new sense of self-belief and ambition.
Fired up with passion
I want every child in this country to go to a school where teachers come to work fired up with the passion that brought them into the profession in the first place.
I want every child to have the same chance to make the most of their potential and to get the kind of start in life that will set them up for a fulfilling and happy future.
Schools are obviously key to achieving that ambition, and there are so many doing incredibly well. But there are also a few that we know can achieve far more and we’ve got to approach them with a rigorous sense of mission.
Just after the election, I spoke to the team at the Department for Education about how we must be bolder and braver in our approach: if we don’t do everything we can to continue to drive improvement, then we are letting children down.
Shared sense of purpose
That’s not what I want, and I know it’s not what you want, either. So now I am urging you to do likewise. This new sense of purpose must be something we all share and that we all carry forward.
I’m sure you know that the government announced a huge funding boost for schools in the autumn: £14 billion over three years, to be precise, plus £780 million in new funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities. This will go a long way to addressing some of the issues that most regularly come up in conversation when I am out visiting schools.
However, I know there are some challenges that continue, including ensuring special-needs provision, tackling unnecessary workload and recruiting and retaining staff.
We have already announced that we will increase starting salaries for new teachers to £30,000.
This isn’t just about making teaching attractive to the most talented graduates. It’s about recognising the prestige and value that we as a society put on the profession.
I will also be pushing hard to drive forward our further-education reforms and transform post-16 education.
We need to go further to ensure that the talent that is evenly spread across the country has equal access to opportunity.
Skills education has a key role to play – not only to build a highly skilled workforce so that we can compete with other advanced economies, but to set young people up for productive and fulfilling careers, and to enable people to fulfil their potential.
Champion in government
I’d just like to say that it is an incredible privilege to be back as your champion in government.
I know you have probably heard all you want to hear from politicians for some time. But I want you to know that I care passionately about what the Department for Education does.
I know full well that without your commitment and dedication my job would be impossible. I don’t take any of that for granted, and am grateful every day for everything you do.
Thank you, and happy new year.
Gavin Williamson is the secretary of state for education