As a Conservative, when I look at where we’ve had the biggest impact in government, there’s one area that really stands out.
And that’s education.
Through a lot of hard work, not least from teachers…
….we have come a very, very long way.
Thanks to the reforms carried out by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan…
… we’ve seen standards raised and 1.4m more children in good or outstanding schools.
In higher education, the global rankings now show our universities right at the very top…
….with record numbers of our young people applying.
Crucially, over the last six and a half years we’ve also seen a renaissance in apprenticeships….
… well over two and a half million of them (since 2010).
We’ve much to be proud of.
And that’s why, as Secretary of State for Education, I’m very clear that this reform must continue.
And I’m working with a great team of Ministers.
Nick Gibb, Ed Timpson, Robert Halfon, Jo Johnson, Caroline Dinenage and in the Lords, Lord Nash.
And there’s still a lot more to do.
Our Prime Minister set out our Party’s mission….
….to make our country one that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
To give people control over the things that matter most in their lives.
And education is at the heart of our ambition. It’s how we make Britain a true meritocracy.
To me, it’s not just about the most disadvantaged families. It’s more than that.
Because all parents have their hopes and dreams for their children, but in practice, for most… they can never really take their eye off the economic realities of everyday life.
And what’s it like for the children in those families?
Well, I was one of them, and when I think back to my own childhood, growing up in Rotherham in the eighties:
All I wanted was a level playing field. I didn’t expect any more – but I didn’t think I should expect any less either.
And neither did my parents.
And nowhere was that more important to me than in my education.
I loved going to school. Herringthorpe Primary, Oakwood Comprehensive, Thomas Rotherham College.
As the first comprehensive school educated secretary of state for education, I want to say thank you to the teachers in all those schools that opened up so many opportunities for me.
We all remember great teachers, and no other profession has the power to transform futures so much.
My job – our job now – is to make sure that today’s children, whatever their background, get the best start.
And to me, that means three things:
Knowledge and skills…
The right advice at the right time…
Thirdly, great, challenging, life shaping experiences…
These are the building blocks to help young people be successful in their years ahead.
And that’s why we’ve put responsibility for early years, schools, Further and Higher Education, Adult skills and apprenticeships all under one roof, in one department,
And we’ve never had a better chance to make a difference for our children and young people.
And look at what we are already doing:
….Doubling free childcare for parents of 3 and 4 year olds.
….Creating 3 million new apprenticeships for young people.
….And for those who want to go to university…. for the first time we’ve removed the historic cap on university places
….now, if universities want to offer a place to a student and they get the grades, they can go
We’re also opening 500 brand new free schools by the end of 2020
Because having more good schools, and more good school places for children is vital….
…..and especially for disadvantaged children.
The academy reforms of the last 15 years are the right ones, but now we need to create more capacity in the system.
We talk about postcode lotteries….
But unless you can afford to move to the right area, education has been the ultimate postcode lottery.
That’s why our green paper is asking how we can create more great school places in more parts of the country, including selective places.
I talked about having a level playing field.
Grammar schools have a track record of closing the attainment gap between children on free school meals and their better off classmates.
That’s because in grammars, those children on free school meals progress twice as fast as the other children, so the gap disappears.
And 99% of grammars schools are rated good or outstanding.
But in spite of this, Labour’s approach to grammars is: close these schools down.
And it’s rank hypocrisy.
Because Labour Shadow Ministers send their children to grammars too.
It’s classic Labour: do as I say… not as I do.
Conservatives believe we should support parental choice, not ignore it.
Local areas who want more grammar places should be able to have them…
And similarly, local areas who want to stick…
with the existing schools that they’re happy with…
will be able to do that too.
And, unlike at present, we will challenge grammars and selective schools…
To work much harder at getting more disadvantaged pupils through their doors.
We’ll challenge them to show they can also improve the schools around them.
And we all know children develop at different speeds, so let’s be flexible on which age children can go to grammars.
So let’s be clear: this is not about a return to the eleven plus.
And our Universities, our Independent Schools and our faith schools will all have their part to play too, working with other schools in the system.
All of this is about more and better choices for parents….
….but I want us to improve choice for students too.
We’ve got more young people going into higher education than ever before…
… And, critically, more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I was the first person in my family to go University…
….And I know how much it transformed my own prospects.
But for many young people in our country, university won’t be the path they’ll necessarily want to take.
Like Jess, they might not want a purely academic route.
They might prefer a technical one.
Last year 48% of our young people went to university, but 52% didn’t.
And for too long the technical education they want hasn’t been good enough.
We’ve already set about changing that with our Skills Plan and this will be a big focus for me as Secretary of State.
I’m determined to put the quality of technical education on a par with the quality of our academic education.
The parts we really need to pull together are the work of Further Education colleges up and down the country…
….UTCs – the University Technical Colleges…..
….And the huge extra investment in apprenticeships from our biggest companies.
Yes, it’s about knowledge…
….our reformed, rigorous, stretching curriculum, matching the best in the world.
But it’s also about skills – creative skills, problem solving, team-working….
….The skills that employers, that British business, needs.
We are transforming our academic route, now we must do the same for technical education and skills.
We need a world class education system that works for everyone… all of our young people.
And all of this has at its heart, a mission….
….To make ours a country where we’ve removed the barriers…
…. that stop people from being the best they can be.
……The Great Meritocracy….. Opportunity Britain… a levelled-up Britain.
It doesn’t matter what you call it.
This country’s greatest asset is its people.
So, unlocking potential, and levelling up opportunity in our country…..
Is Britain’s greatest generational challenge.
When everyone does even just a bit better…
…our country does a lot better.
And so the final part of what I want to say…
….is focused on the children and young people who are the very furthest away from having a level playing field on opportunity.
Because as far as we’ve come on improving education…
…there are still more than a million children in schools that have been judged not good enough by Ofsted.
That’s one million children locked out of opportunity.
We’ve seen lots of schools improve…
…not just through greater freedoms, and a stronger curriculum….
….but through working together – the great schools helping others to get better too.
But when there aren’t good schools around then that’s a lot harder to do.
We need to change that.
Earlier this year, the Social Mobility Commission released a report that identified places where educational attainment was poor….
…. and where job prospects were poor as well.
It called them social mobility coldspots.
Getting real change could take a generation….
And it’s going to need a different strategy to what we’ve done before, so….
Today I’m announcing the first six Opportunity Areas, where we’ll trial a new approach.
I talked about our education system needing to give children and young people three things:
Knowledge and skills
The right advice
And Great life Experiences.
Opportunity Areas will have an extra push on all of these.
And our approach will be tailored to each area’s needs.
That’s how we’ll really make a difference, and that’s what Opportunity Areas will do.
It’s going to take teachers and schools…. communities…. and it’s going to take business.
For teachers and schools in these Opportunity Areas, there will be extra support….
…. partnering them up with the schools and teachers who’ve already raised standards and turned around schools elsewhere in the country.
We’ll focus on better careers advice by getting our Careers and Enterprise Company to really focus on the children in these communities….
….and I’ll work with great organisations like Young Enterprise and City Year.
With help from Karen Bradley and DCMS….
….we’re going to make sure that young people in Opportunity Areas are plugged into amazing experiences and volunteering through the National Citizen Service.
And of course, business has a vital role…..
…because British business is the ultimate opportunity giver.
I want to see businesses spotting and polishing up the talent of a new generation… the rough diamonds…
….to make sure we unlock all the talent of our country….
….. but especially in these Opportunity Areas where it’s most likely to be missed.
That’s why we’re about to hear from Carolynne Fairbairn of the CBI.
Business has such a great role to play….
….setting young people’s sights high….
…….and broadening horizons.
It’s hard to aim for an opportunity if you don’t even know it’s there.
And that’s why I’m so pleased that the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have agreed…..
……to get behind these Opportunity Areas.
And I want to see more business organisations and Local Enterprise Partnerships involved with our work over the coming weeks and months…..
….along with local councils and local communities.
What I’ve talked about is very hard to do…
….and generational issues don’t get fixed overnight.
But we’ve got to make a start….
….and that’s what these first Opportunity Areas are all about.
As Conservatives we know that maybe the most precious commodity in life is opportunity.
These million children who are locked out of opportunity…. have just as much talent as any other children in our country….
….we owe it to them and to ourselves to unlock it.
And for our country, driving social mobility isn’t just the right thing to do…..
….it’s essential if we’re to be a success in today’s world.
However much uncertainty there is out there in the world, one thing is certain…..
….and that’s that Britain’s going to have be at the top of its game if we’re going to succeed.
We’ll only reach our country’s potential when these children can reach theirs.
Just because this is complicated…..
…., it doesn’t mean it’s beyond us as a country.
And ours is a party that’s always run towards these big generational issues…
never away from them.
This is what Britain should stand for.
A country where anyone can succeed.
And it’s our Conservative Party…. that’s going to level up Britain.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.