Gordon Brown: I want to free teachers to work small miracles

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The Prime Minister sets out his vision for 21st-century education

Original paper headline: I want to free teachers to work small miracles

I went to the local school in the town I grew up in. And many, many years later, on my first day as Prime Minister, I stood in Downing Street and recited its motto: "I will try my utmost."

Those simple words and memories of classmates and teachers - you never forget a good teacher - stayed with me because Kirkcaldy High School gave me one of the most precious gifts for any child: opportunity.

The first great wave of post-war social changes saw many children become the first in their families to get to university. And now I want to nurture a new wave of social mobility. That is my very personal mission, for if we can fulfil the potential and realise the talents of all our young people, Britain can be the great global success story of this century.

Any country that lags behind in education will lag behind in economic recovery. So, for me, there is no job more important to our collective futures than being a teacher.

We are blessed with a fine crop of great and dedicated professionals - the "best generation ever", according to Ofsted - driving change, innovating and raising ambitions of schools and pupils.

With better pay, improved training and increased opportunities for specialisation, teaching is already one of the top choices for Oxbridge graduates and career switchers. And to continue to raise the standing of teaching, we are making it a masters-level profession and putting it on a par with other high-status careers.

So it is to teachers that we now turn and in them we must now place our trust; drawing on their expertise, passion and commitment with a fresh approach fit for the time.

In 1997, our priority was to redress decades of underfunding, rebuild crumbling classrooms and drive up standards with a relentless focus on the three Rs. This necessarily involved the rigorous regime of targets and top-down programmes like the National Strategies.

There continues to be a role for strong, active government. The National Challenge is breaking the link between deprivation and low educational attainment - one of the most important tasks facing our education system.

It is not just about getting every school to a benchmark on exam results, but represents a much wider and ambitious vision in which schools strive for higher and higher standards of excellence.

Government being prepared to intervene in this way has unquestionably reaped rewards. Twelve years ago, around 1,600 schools were underperforming; we have pulled nearly 1,400 up to standard and remain committed to ensuring every child gets the best start in life. And over the same time, the number of schools with 70 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-Cs has almost doubled.

We can devolve more power to heads and liberate teachers to perform those daily minor miracles: opening children's eyes to the world, encouraging curiosity, building confidence and preparing them for the future.

Trusting teachers is why we have thinned out the curriculum in secondary schools and plan the same in primaries, ensuring a continued focus on the basics alongside flexibility for teachers to ensure that every pupil is stretched and engaged.

Trusting teachers is why we are winding down the National Strategies and devolving power to schools to decide how they spend cash for raising standards. It should also mean the profession increasingly driving improvements and teachers learning from each other.

And it means putting ever-greater responsibility in the hands of heads with a track record of turning around underperforming schools. Because they are best placed to continue our mission to drive up standards, we want them at the heart of an expansion in federations.

I'm not willing to accept excuses for underperformance. Every school should be doing the best by all its pupils. But progress relies on the need to retain clear accountability through testing. This means at the end of primary school as much as at the end of secondary. It is why we are introducing the School Report Card, which will hold schools to account for how they ensure pupils' progress. And it means a stronger voice for parents.

Moving away from the top-down approach that was essential to lift standards means parents must have guarantees and entitlements over their children's education. Co-operation and collaboration between all those who make children their first priority is the key to improving schools.

Take our guarantee of a personalised education tailored to realise the potential of every child and transform their life chances. This includes personal tutors in secondary schools, online information for parents on what their child is learning and how they are getting on, and catch-up classes for pupils who are falling behind.

Already we are seeing impressive results from our one-to-one programmes. Nearly 3,000 Year 2 pupils took part in the Every Child Counts scheme last year. On average, 20 hours of tuition brought almost 14 months of progress, with maths levels up in all the schools involved.

And, of course, there's the human achievement behind the figures. There's Zhaina, a cheerful, determined girl who had made little progress in two and a half years at school. But after daily half-hour Numbers Count lessons, her teacher said she had "completely caught up with others in the class". She'd made more than two years of progress in six months. Scott, meanwhile, was transformed from a shy, softly spoken boy to one full of confidence and self-esteem.

There are plans to roll out Every Child Counts - and its counterpart, Every Child a Reader - to reach tens of thousands of low-achievers. These programmes have the potential to revolutionise our education system because, in a time of universal education, improving social mobility needs to focus on the quality and personalisation of lessons - ensuring the school system delivers excellence for every child, not just the majority.

We must do all we can to ensure children have mastered the basics by the end of primary school. Even in the most challenging economic times, schools must continue to transform the prospects of every pupil, particularly those from modest backgrounds, by responding to their personal needs.

We will continue to protect education spending. But schools are not immune from the need to improve efficiency and value for money while continuing to improve quality.

Social mobility is at the heart of our vision for a fairer, stronger, more responsible Britain. Like all parents, I am driven by the duty to provide our children with the best chances in life.

That means learning in bright, modern, safe and well-equipped schools; access to a rich range of sports and arts; and being taught by world-class professionals, with clear guarantees to the support necessary to release their talent.

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister

Read our lead story: Brown weighs into Sats row


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today