The Great Debate 1996

This lecture was given by Labour leader Tony Blair on 16 December 1996 to mark the twentieth anniversary of Jim Callaghan's Ruskin College speech (18 October 1976), which began 'The Great Debate' about the nature and purpose of public education.

Blair became Prime Minister six months later when 'New Labour' won a landslide victory in the general election of May 1997.

The text of Tony Blair's Ruskin College lecture was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 4 February 2013.

'The agenda for a generation'

Tony Blair
Ruskin College Oxford
16 December 1996

Let me first of all acknowledge what I know many of you here feel - that Ruskin is at the moment living under the cloud of the untimely death of Raphael Samuel, who taught here with great distinction for 30 years. John Prescott's moving obituary in Thursday's Guardian painted the picture of a man with a passion for teaching and learning, with independent and generous spirit, and with a deep commitment to a founding idea of the labour movement - that education can develop the hidden talents of ordinary people. I know he will be much missed.

Since I became leader of the Labour party, I have emphasised that education will be a priority for me in government. I have done so because of the fact - increasingly recognised across our society - that our economic success and our social cohesion depend on it. An age of achievement is within our grasp - but it depends on an ethic of education. That is why in my party conference speech I said that my three priorities for government would be education, education and education.

The themes of new Labour's education policy are clear and have found resonance across the country. A new Labour government will focus on standards, especially in the basics of literacy and numeracy, in all our schools. We will expect education - and other public services - to be held accountable for their performance; we will urge teachers to work in partnership with parents, business and the community; and we will balance parents' rights with a recognition of their responsibilities. These ideas have one aim - to improve the educational experience, and raise standards of achievement, for the majority of children.

I believe there is the chance to forge a new consensus on education policy. It will be practical not ideological. And it will put behind us the political and ideological debates that have dominated the last 30 years. The foundations of the consensus are clear. Early support for children under the age of five. Primary schools delivering high standards of literacy and numeracy. Rigorous assessment of pupil and school performance, and action based upon it. Improved training and qualifications for teachers, especially Heads. Early intervention when things go wrong. Support from all sections of the community to ensure that all our children are given the best possible start. And we must never forget that education is not a one-off event for the under 18s. The new consensus must be based on wide access to higher education and continual opportunities for all adults to learn throughout life.

At the end of five years, I am clear what I would like to see. No five, six or seven-year-old in a class of more than 30 and every child with access to the best of new technology. Progress towards our target of every primary child learning to read well, with special help for those who fall behind. Every 17 or 18-year-old studying for a qualification. Higher education finance put on a sound and equitable footing. All teachers constantly updating their skills. Every school, college or university hooked up to the superhighway. Every one of us seeking opportunities to learn. I want to see something else too. Education is about more than exams. We are right to be concerned about how our children seem to be falling behind. But we are also right to insist that education is about something more. Ruskin College reminds us that education is about opening minds not just to knowledge, but to insight, beauty, inspiration. Schools and colleges which are good academically are often also dedicated to helping every student develop as an individual. They create a community of learning that is about personal growth as well as personal achievement. Ruskin has, since its inception, provided top-class education for people with top-class, minds but no qualifications, teaching them about others but also teaching them about themselves, and in the process helping them to change direction in their lives. John Prescott is the leading example in the party of someone who had their natural talent developed at Ruskin. He gave a magnificent testimonial to Ruskin at a lecture here in June: as he put it, Ruskin taught him never to be afraid of asking questions.

Twenty years ago, James Callaghan launched a national debate here at Ruskin College about issues of standards, accountability and the relationship between schools, industry and parents. He chose to do so because education has been a personal passion for him, too, throughout his life.

As he himself has said, he raised the right questions but did not provide all the answers. 'I am concerned,' he said, 'to find complaints from industry that new recruits from the schools sometimes do not have the basic tools to do the job.' Referring to the informal teaching methods, which were then becoming widely used, he said they 'seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands but are much more dubious when they are not.'

His speech put the idea of a National Curriculum high on the political agenda for the first time. Callaghan expressed the view - still at the heart of Labour thinking - that the education service should aim to produce young people able to take a lively constructive place in both the workplace and society at large.

Today, I want to look at what has happened since 1976, and, more important, look forward to what should happen in the future. Like James Callaghan, I will be concentrating on schools. We have set out our thinking on the future of higher and further education in papers issued by David Blunkett and Bryan Davies.

After 1979, one might have anticipated that the Tories would recognise the importance of education. In fact, they let it drift for their first eight years in power and then turned it on its head in the next eight. Complacency was followed by revolution. Now there is relative calm. But they still seek to drive the education system with their eyes fixed firmly in the rear-view mirror. The only future they can see is based on the past: a creeping return to selection at 11, division and atomisation of the education service, the write-off of more generations.

Some reform undertaken in the 1980s - the national curriculum, local management of schools - was long overdue. But imagine how much more progress could have been made if we had spent the last two decades since Jim Callaghan's speech working productively, consistently and steadily for improvement.

While some of our schools are first-rate, many are good and most are improving, standards are not good enough, and in international terms we are falling behind. We have a major problem at the bottom, and suffer from problems too in the middle. One in seven 21-year-olds have trouble reading, and one in five has problems with basic numeracy. Forty two per cent of 11-year-olds are below the expected standard in maths, and half below the expected level in English. Half as many pupils get three good GCSEs and two good A Levels as their German counterparts.

Little wonder that Jim Callaghan should say, in a speech in London to mark the 20th anniversary of the Ruskin lecture, that our problems today are more urgent than they were then.

We have the responsibility now to learn the lessons of the last 20 years and put in place an education service fit for a new millennium.

Of course, I want to see urgent, immediate progress and short-term targets for one, two and five years. But, even more, I would like to be able to look back in 2010 and recognise that in the late 1990s my Labour government began the process of establishing the creative, vibrant, successful education service our country desperately needs.

The abiding problem of British education is easily stated: we provide excellence for a few instead of the majority. We therefore need a concerted attempt to raise standards for the majority in the core subjects while continuing to stretch the best to achieve all they can. Our job is to raise standards of the worst schools to that of the average, and the standards of the average to that of the best.

The uniquely wide gap that exists in Britain between educational achievement at the top and standards in the middle and bottom is partly a result of our comparatively large private sector, educating some 7 per cent of children with roughly double the resources per pupil.

But to be frank, analysis of the problems caused by the deep divide between the two systems has so far been much sharper than proposals to address it. The heart of any attempt to break down the barriers must be improving the quality of the state sector.

The fact is that the gap between elite excellence and mass underperformance exists within the state sector. Just as we have a 'long tail' of underperforming companies in the corporate sector, so we have a long tail of schools in the education service. The century old tradition of low expectations for the majority is at the heart of this problem. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was thought either that the majority of people did not need to achieve decent standards, or that they could not achieve them. Today we know from the experience of other countries that more education need not mean worse education. And we know too that not only is it possible for large numbers of school-leavers to achieve high standards, but that it is more and more important that they do so. We have to match our competitors in believing that in the core subjects of the curriculum all students can gain a good grounding.

I want to discuss our approach to raising standards in four areas: policy, implementation, leadership and investment.

In the 1980s, the Right claimed to have an easy answer to the questions posed by Jim Callaghan. The market would deliver education reform. 'Focus on structures and standards will come good.' But the truth is that we know the qualities that make a successful school - clear leadership from the head, ongoing staff review and improvement, high expectations of all pupils, good links with parents, the list is well-known - and changing the structures doesn't alter the need to imbue every school with these qualities. Culture, attitude and expectations are critical to successful education, and they exist whether or not we have a market in education.

No one in the education service wants a revolution. But they do want to see positive reform that works with the grain of change, starting with young children and moving all the way through the age range.

Children need to arrive at school well-prepared. That is, Labour is committed to ending the wasteful and inequitable nursery voucher scheme, and replacing it with a firm guarantee of a nursery place for every four-year-old. We will use existing resources to make a start in providing places for all three-year-olds and set a target for universal provision. We will also pilot early excellence centres, like the Cruddas Park Nursery Project created by Newcastle LEA, combining education and care, suited to the working times of many parents, as well as the needs of children.

Unless children master the basics they will struggle. That is why we have pledged to make improved literacy our first target, with the aim of every child leaving primary school with a reading age to match their chronological age.

Smaller classes in infants' schools make a difference to pupil performance - so we have pledged to phase out the assisted places scheme to pay for a cut in all such classes to 30 or less.

Children have different abilities in different subjects. So we insist that the education structure responds to that diversity, promoting different levels and types of achievement within a school, without falling into the trap, of re-creating selection between schools.

Parents are a child's first and most important teacher. That is why we have put such stress on home-school contracts and opening schools to the community.

The new technology of the information superhighway holds out enormous promise for raising pupil achievement. Under Labour, as I have outlined in two successive conference speeches, every school will be hooked up, every child given the chance to forge ahead, every cost, whether it be access charges or fees for software, driven down so that access to education on the superhighway does become as easy as access to electricity through the National Grid.

I am also passionately committed to the idea that education must be available throughout people's lives. That means a coherent system of 14 to 19 education, with a thriving further and higher education sector. And it means opportunities for people at work: only last week, the IPPR published plans to make a reality of the exciting idea of a University for Industry, with people using individual learning accounts to fund lifelong learning.

But the foundation is in the schools. We have said that our ambition is to ensure that under Labour every school is either excellent or improving or both. A radical goal, but realisable. Zero tolerance of school underperformance and still more urgently school failure requires that we use every tool at our disposal. All struggling schools should be identified by LEAs, and suitable improvement plans developed with targets for improvement. Clear performance criteria from exam results to truancy should be set with year on year targets for improvement. Advice from expert inspectors, perhaps including practising heads, should provide struggling schools with intensive support. There should be new rules for the appointment of head teachers, including national standards for admission to a national register of people qualified to be heads.

As we proposed at our party conference, there should be intensive literacy classes for children who need it during the summer holidays. New governors with experience of school improvement should be appointed to struggling schools. And where efforts at improvement consistently fail, then the LEA should be able to close the school and order a 'fresh start' on the same site, with new leadership and new teachers dedicated to rebuilding the school. Zero tolerance of failure demands pressure as well as support. Anyone who says Labour has no policies on education has not been following the debate. We have set out a comprehensive view of what needs to be done.

Today I want to develop one proposal to tackle at the very roots the problem of our worst schools.

It is not unusual to find that within a relatively small geographical area, there is wide variety in the standards of schools: next to a very bad school can be a very good one. That is why already there are experiments in linking and twinning schools to each other. In Dorset, four small schools have combined together under one administration. In Birmingham, the LEA has linked together primary schools with like characteristics but different educational outcomes as part of their school improvement drive. Many LEAs are piloting ways of using secondments of successful head teachers to spread good practice. And David Blunkett has already announced plans to extend access to excellence by encouraging 'families of schools' to co-operate on 14 to 19 provision.

At present, the ultimate sanction for a school is that it fails an OFSTED inspection. The school is then identified for 'special measures' and the LEA must prepare an action plan for improvement. But this all happens too late. School failure is an educational catastrophe. We need to be able to intervene early with sufficient power to stop the spiral of decline.

One new way forward would be for good well-led schools effectively to take over schools that LEAs identify as heading for failure. The head would take on the management and leadership of the combined school and work to lift the performance and esteem of staff and pupils alike. The intention would be that after a time - performance targets could be set for six months or a year - the less successful school would be able to stand on its own feet again. Until that time the successful school would effectively be running two sites with a single head teacher.

The rationale is simple: while much of educational success can be attributed to the skills, knowledge and commitment of individual teachers, good leadership is critical. While it will not be appropriate in all circumstances, encouraging tried and tested leadership teams in successful schools to take on responsibility for underperforming schools could prove a lifeline for schools caught in a vicious circle of low expectations, poor management, declining rolls and low morale.

In effect, the LEA would be using a pool of expertise already available to it. Public sector management needs to be flexible and pragmatic: this is one example of an important trend. In the future, the model could be extended to provide for further provision of services from one school to another, perhaps covering specialist teaching or homework.

However, we are not yet at that stage. In the first instance, I believe the basic idea should be piloted at primary school level.

Real change in education does not, however, simply flow from the development of good and radical proposals in manifestos. It depends on government and 400,000 teachers working constructively together in 25,000 schools.

Perhaps in this of all years, we have been reminded more starkly than ever before of just how teachers are the lifeblood and sometimes the life-savers of the children in their care. This has, after all, been the year of Philip Lawrence and the year of Dunblane.

At the time of Callaghan's Ruskin speech, teachers' leaders reacted defensively, believing that this was an intrusion into their secret garden. Callaghan's warning that 'if the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for themselves in the future', has been borne out. But one of this government's biggest mistakes has been to take the excesses of a few teachers as an excuse to pillory the whole profession.

David Blunkett and I have not shied away from criticising the small minority of incompetent teachers. We will continue to do so when it is necessary, not least because it is in the interests of the overwhelming majority of teachers and schools who are working hard and often successfully in sometimes extremely difficult circumstances. We will, for the benefit of both other teachers and, above all, pupils, ensure that poor teachers are removed from teaching more quickly.

A Labour government will also establish a General Teaching Council, as already exists in Scotland, with responsibility for setting high professional standards and promoting and regulating the teaching profession. We will encourage a more structured pattern of professional development and ensure the five training days are properly used. We will offer teachers the opportunity for promotion while remaining in the classroom through the establishment of the Advanced Skills Teacher. We will seek to remove bureaucratic burdens. And we will develop classroom support from teacher associates, people from business or the community who are prepared to give time, energy and expertise to schools.

The third component of successful education reform, after good policy and the engagement of the teaching profession, is strong leadership from the centre. This means the prime minister must maintain an interest, and I will, to ensure that when strategic decisions need to be taken, it is not just the education secretary speaking for education. Educational commentators increasingly recognise this to be the case.

With a Labour government, education will have greater status than ever before. For most of this century, the DES was seen as a bit of a backwater by both civil servants and politicians. Kenneth Baker, I gather, described his move there from environment in 1986 as 'like moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton'. Under Labour, we will complete the process. It will be like moving to the manager's job at Newcastle United. Education should be a leading office of state, comparable to the other departments which have traditionally had that title.

The average length of time in office for ministers of education since the First World War is less than two years. They have - it has been remarked - often been politicians either on their way up or on their way out. While in the case of one or two recent incumbents it is a relief to us all that they only fleetingly held the post, this state of affairs is clearly unacceptable. It has got to change. Under Labour, it will. I want my ministers to expect to take responsibility for seeing a strategy through and to take the credit too if they succeed.

A new Labour government will not be in a position to invest large new sums of money in public services. We shall inherit from this government a record level of debt and a record level of tax rises, which has severely tried the patience of voters. However, spending is about choices and priorities.

The distinguished former permanent secretary in the department, Geoffrey Holland, has argued that with the help of proper research and dissemination on what works it is possible to achieve a 30 per cent increase in education performance within existing resources. His point is well made: it is easy to spend a lot of money and not make much difference to the outcome. That is why we will be wise spenders and not big spenders. Nevertheless, as I said in Blackpool, within these constraints we have promised growth in education.

The first of our five early pledges, to redirect money spent on the assisted places scheme from the few to the many and from secondary to primary education, is symbolic of our overall approach to education investment.

The Tories' neglect of the country's stock of school buildings has been serious. Children continue to learn in dilapidated classrooms. I am delighted that David Blunkett was, after exhaustive discussions with the banks, able to announce at Easter a new public-private partnership to refurbish and improve groups of schools. It will take time, of course: 17 years of neglect cannot be rectified overnight. But we will make a start. And we will follow through.

In our submission to the Dearing committee, we suggested how to replace the current inequitable and discredited mix of loans, grants and parental contributions, with a long-term repayable contributions scheme covering maintenance and collected through national insurance.

Student poverty, parental misery, and unequal access add up to a spectacularly flawed policy. The replacement can tackle these three problems, and the unfair treatment of part-time students. I know the pressures in higher education and the importance of securing a long-term settlement for the sector. We await the proposals of the Dearing committee with interest, and will study them carefully.

Then in the early manifesto supported by 95 per cent of voting party members, we said that our objective over the lifetime of a Labour government would be to reverse the current trend whereby we spend more and more of national income on the welfare costs of unemployment and less and less on education.

It is wrong to believe that this government have not spent a lot of money. They have; but on the wrong things. Education investment is down by the equivalent of more than 2bn a year as a share of national income.

What has gone up are the costs of economic failure and inequality - unemployment benefits to pay for more unemployment, housing benefits instead of housing investment, more than 2.4bn on the cost of low pay. We want to turn that around - spend less on leaving people unemployed and invest more in education instead.

In addition, two weeks ago, the review group on the National Lottery set up by Jack Cunningham suggested that when the Millennium Fund closes in 2000, Labour should designate a proportion of that stream of money to support discrete and time-limited projects for children and young people. The funding would provide discrete and time-limited investment for example to bring teachers' skills up to date in new technology.

We recognise that improving schools takes time and steady, consistent effort. Our aim will be to underpin improvement by providing steady, consistent investment. The combination of our unrelenting focus on standards, an openness to change, a new culture of high expectations and this commitment to investment will provide the foundations of an education service fit for the 21st century. An education service that will be at the heart of the age of achievement.

Twenty years ago, James Callaghan had the courage to challenge the orthodoxies of his time. He sketched out both his concerns and the outline of a new modernised education service which offered equal opportunity and high standards for all. He questioned the existing set of relationships between government, parents, employers and teachers and pointed the way forward.

Since then, the education service has been reformed by successive Tory governments, but the questions Callaghan posed and the issues he raised remain - remarkably - relevant today. His speech truly set the agenda for a generation. I shall be proud to begin work on that agenda and the sooner the better. It means a change of policy, but also a change of culture - from a commitment to the excellence of the few, to support for the talents of the many.

The country demands and our young people deserve an education system to match the best in the world. The next Labour government will set out to provide it.