So much progress but schools must stay top of our agenda

1st December 2006 at 00:00
When 10 years ago I committed a future Labour government to make education our top priority, I knew it was teachers who would have to deliver the transformation we wanted in schools.

You have risen tremendously to this challenge. Your skills and dedication have brought huge progress over the past decade. And with your continued support, we can do even better over the next 10 years.

Most teachers have welcomed our commitment and huge investment into education since 1997. I also recognise that The TES and some of its readers have not always agreed with all the changes we've made. So in the revamped TES, I want to re-state the case for the reforms we have made and the priorities I believe will determine the future.

A decade on, the differences are manifest. We have learnt much about what it takes to make a good school, and set about applying these lessons more widely. But political memories are very short. It's easy to forget how much has changed.

Ten years ago, there was a serious debate about whether tax-funded public services could survive. Under-investment had taken its toll, staff morale was low. Infrastructure was crumbling and, though public affection had held up, people had become fatalistic about these services' future.

The debates today are different. Teachers and school leaders are better rewarded. There are many more teachers and support staff in better-equipped schools. There has been a sea-change in expectations followed by big improvements in results, especially in areas and among those groups who were underachieving most. Together, we have now set up a new structure: accountability through inspection and tests, specialisation, and greater choice for parents. Why are specialisation and greater choice important? We inherited a monochrome education system. Specialist schools and academies are now part of a spectrum of diversity, with different types of school - foundation and trust status - and programmes such as Excellence in Cities and London Challenge.

We had a simple formula: investment plus reform. Its results have been outstanding. More than 1,500 failing schools have been turned round. Where more than 600 schools had fewer than 25 per cent of pupils gaining five good GCSEs in 1997, today there are just over 60. We have plans for the first 100 academies and are committed to 200 open or in the pipeline by 2010. Now I want us to go further and identify 400 academies as part of the biggest school building programme since the Second World War.

Why do I place so much stock in academies? Not because I have a secret desire to involve the private sector in education, but because outside organisations want to play a role and are bringing energy and experience to schools in our poorest areas. Some are from the private sector, but some institutions have great histories in education, such as the Mercers Company, the Haberdashers, the Catholic Church and the Church of England, and increasingly from our universities. Ultimately, academies are revitalised schools which have proved to parents, teachers and pupils that we believe in them and are not prepared to see their local education system left behind.

As well as creating a spectrum of school models, we need to adapt post-14 choices to suit the needs of every pupil. For some, that will mean specialised diplomas. In others, it means making sure that A-levels stretch our best pupils.

If we are serious about tailoring education to young people's needs, they should have real choices after 14 - strong qualifications with strengthened A-levels, new diplomas, the international baccalaureate and apprenticeships. These choices will help to meet the needs of young people and universities as well as the demands of industry.

A great deal has changed in the past 10 years. What has not changed is my conviction that education must remain at the top of our country's priorities. In an increasingly competitive world, it is the societies that make the most of the talents and potential of all their people that will succeed.

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