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Faith Schools

John Simkin

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Here is the full text of the speech given to the National Catholic Heads conference by the shadow education secretary, Tim Collins

Thursday January 27, 2005

Faith Schools

I am delighted to have the chance to speak to a conference of Catholic headteachers, since your schools - like faith schools in general - continue consistently to perform above the national average on pretty much any measure, and remain heavily oversubscribed by parents.

Your work and achievements do not merely satisfy the purely secular demands of good discipline and high academic attainment, but play an essential role in providing an answer to the spiritual yearning and quest for meaning which are so inevitably a part of children's lives.

Even more than most schools, those with a faith orientation - a vocation if you will - can and do shape the entire lives of those who pass through their doors.

The right to make our own choices about our own families is not given by any law or any government on earth, but stems from earlier, deeper, stronger foundations.

That is why I am so determined to do everything I can to promote and encourage the growth of faith schools. Where you already exist, and have the space and will to expand on your present site, you should have upfront capital funds to do so. Where the Roman Catholic church and local parents wish to open new Catholic schools, you should expect to see a green light from the top. And where access to you depends on free school transport, the threat to that under the current school transport bill should be removed.

While others see faith schools as divisive or sectional, I see them as offering a quality and form of education which are entirely positive. Faith and faith schools should not be marginalised, sidelined or under-estimated. Wherever parents wish to choose you, they should be able to do so.

You are doing good work, and I wish not only to thank you for it but to give you and your church the tools and help to do still more of it.

The exam system

Let me turn next to the examination system.

There is much in which the schools represented here can take pride. Better results should never be dismissed as simply the product of easier exams - they are the fruit of a great deal of hard work by teachers and pupils alike.

There is also the possibility of real cross-party consensus on at least some aspects of Mike Tomlinson's report into the 14-19 curriculum. A strong focus on the basics of literacy, numeracy and ICT. A clear vocational pathway. And the need, first flagged up by Michael Howard but now endorsed by both the prime minister and the new education secretary, to ensure that GCSEs and A-levels are strengthened not scrapped. If we can reach agreement on these key points, there is a strong likelihood that the ten-year transition period envisaged by Tomlinson can proceed with considerable smoothness, untroubled by any political upheavals in the interim.

Sadly, we cannot even so conclude that all is entirely well with UK exams. Employers, the media and the public are all experiencing and noticing a collapse of confidence in the integrity of the examination system.

45% is regarded as sufficient for an A-grade in GCSE Maths. 18% can earn you a B in another exam.

A qualification in cookery is valued above one in physics. Some questions in today's A-levels are suspiciously similar, if not identical, to questions in O-level papers from 20 or 30 years ago.

League tables, the essential prerequisite for informed and effective parental choice, are badly undermined when, by a stroke of the pen, a single GNVQ in ICT counts the same as four separate GCSEs - or when even within GCSEs an A-star ceases to be worth eight times as much as a G and instead is deemed to have a value just three and a half times greater.

The "all shall have prizes" mentality seems to have no bounds of commonsense or respect for merit. Charles Clarke said, just days before his departure from the education department, that he wanted to see every child get an A-grade. Nothing more corrosive of excellence could be imagined.

Meanwhile exam boards have been encouraged to compete with each other not to produce papers which are likely to tax the brightest the most but instead on the grounds of lowest cost and greatest likelihood of being able to secure a pass for marginal candidates.

Those interested in keeping exam success as a challenge, not an entitlement, should be able to look to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to be their guardian. The QCA should be the champion of quality, the steel-eyed unapologetic defender of robustness.

Sadly, it has proven to be very far from being any of these.

Far from criticising the debauching of standards, the QCA has time and again defended and even encouraged the very trends which cause such alarm. Rather than pointing the way towards higher standards, it has vigorously led the path downhill. The recent changes to league tables, which are supposed to convince parents against all commonsense that superbly academic schools are actually not very good at all, confirm this.

The QCA, at least in its present form, is not part of the solution - instead it is the heart of the problem.

For that reason I have, reluctantly but firmly, concluded that it is no longer appropriate for the Conservative party to advocate immediate independence for the existing QCA.

We had hoped to protect standards by modelling an independent QCA on the Bank of England. Sadly, to make the present QCA independent would be to reward those who have debauched the currency of exams rather than those who have defended them.

Accordingly, the next Conservative government will drive through rapid and decisive change in the regulation of the exam system. We will promote much greater diversity, and encourage competition between exam boards for higher standards rather than ever lower challenges. We will aim to have at least one exam board owned and controlled by the Russell group of universities. We will scrap the rules which presently prevent large-scale usage of more difficult exams such as O-levels and the international baccalaureate.

We will be determined to encourage excellence, and we will not permit absurdly low pass rates for good grades.

We will insist on penalties for poor grammar and inaccurate spelling. We will restore rigour.

Once we have put in place the people and policies required to do these things, we can and will revisit the issue of operational independence. Our first priority, however, must be to change the direction of an exam system which has lost sight of its noblest goal - honesty and integrity in assessing the abilities of the young.


Let me turn finally to one specific subject within the curriculum - not because it is by any means the only subject of relevance or importance, but because the problems surrounding it have become simply too great to ignore.

I refer to the teaching of history. Ofsted have concluded that history is in fact the best taught subject in English secondary schools, so my concerns are not directed at teachers - but at the rules surrounding the curriculum.

Recent surveys have shown how great is the degree of ignorance about our history which prevails among so many. Nearly a third of 11-18 year olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings. Under half know that Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory. 30% do not know that the first world war took place in the 20th century. Most alarmingly of all, while huge numbers of Britons of all ages are today pausing to reflect on terrible lessons of Holocaust Memorial Day, apparently 10% of our fellow citizens believe that Hitler was a fictional character not a real person.

In days gone by there was a saying that certain events and historical facts were matters "which every English schoolboy knows". Today, sadly, it seems that most of that knowledge is a blank page to very many schoolboys and schoolgirls alike.

Today I announce a plan to revitalise history's place in our schools.

The distinguished historian and biographer Andrew Roberts has agreed to chair a panel of academics who will draw up a simple but clear list of the key facts, personalities and dates which every child should be taught. But we need to go further.

Currently we allow pupils to drop the study of history at 14. Two thirds do so. Among western countries, only Iceland joins the UK in allowing history to be dropped so early. In most of Europe, it is studied by the majority until the age of 16 or even 18.

It was the last Conservative government which, in its final years, allowed children to opt out of history at the age of 14 - although of course Labour have continued with the policy for the last eight years. If history teaches anything, it is that all human beings make mistakes and therefore so do all political parties. The next Conservative government will admit the error and restore history to the heart of the curriculum studied until 16.

Some will say why single out history? Why does it all matter? Why not allow knowledge of the past to become optional rather than essential?

To them I say this.

Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms.

We cannot be surprised that some within the next generation do not value our parliamentary democracy if they know nothing of the English civil war, do not vote if they are not taught about the struggles to widen the franchise, and do not value any authority figures if they are not told the inspiring tales of the national heroes of our past.

A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.

It is for that reason that we must put history back where it belongs - at the centre of our school lives.


The beauty and the value of history is not that it teaches one view of the world or one perspective on changing events - but that it enables all of us, young and old, to engage in debate and to understand how differing viewpoints have always been with us.

If there is, however, one universal truth taught us by a study of the past it is perhaps this:

Those who believe always achieve more than those who do not. Those who have faith in their god, in themselves, and in their potential will always go furthest. And communities are most united when their differences of belief are embraced not suppressed.

For all those reasons, it has been an honour to speak to you and to be with you today.

May God bless you and all in your schools.

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