The shadow Secretary of State (Andy Burnham) began this discussion and I listened to him with some sympathy, because it is not easy to bounce back from coming last of the serious candidates in one’s party’s leadership election – I exclude Ms Abbott for obvious reasons. The right hon. Gentleman may be a loser, but he is a trier, and a trier deserves a hearing in this House.
Andy Burnham said that the Government are ideological in their pursuit of excellence, and that was repeated by Kevin Brennan. If that is the charge – that we are resolute in our determination and unstinting in our efforts to do the best by our children – I, for one, plead guilty.
Let us start with the Education Maintenance Allowance; the EMA increased participation at the margin – 90% of pupils in receipt of it said that they would have participated in education regardless of the EMA. The last Government were prepared to let the dead-weight cost of the EMA disadvantage learners across the country. We are going to target resources more effectively at those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are going to help people the previous Government failed to help. I do not need to take any lessons from Mr Burnham – Cambridge educated and pulled up on the shirt-tails of Lord Mandelson and Mr Blair – about what it is like to move from a council estate to a decent education to this place.
The Government understands that it is time for fresh thinking. As Michael Gove said, young people’s education today will have a profound social, economic and cultural impact on what Britain becomes tomorrow. A person’s learning, however, does not end with their compulsory schooling.
I recently launched a new strategy for skills that sets out a profoundly optimistic vision for the future of further education and practical learning. I know that Labour members will welcome that positive approach to practical learning: from the burning fire of ambition to the warm glow of achievement, a future nurtured by professional guidance from an all-age careers service with clear routes for progression; a future for colleges in which their primary responsibility and accountability will be to their learners; and a future in which colleges are free to meet the needs of learners, building confidently on what has been achieved by a better, fairer schools system driven by learners’ needs and teachers’ skills with standards raised ever higher through diversity and choice.
That is why we are pushing ahead with opening more academies, including, for the first time, primary academies. A record 144 academies have opened so far during this academic year and there are many more to come. That is indeed record progress – it took four years for the first 27 academies to open. We know that academies are working, as results continue to rise faster than the national average. Academies, specialist schools and other reforms across the world have shown that giving schools autonomy and allowing teachers and head teachers, rather than politicians and bureaucrats, to control schools is what drives up performance.
The early focus has been on outstanding schools, as we want the best schools to lead by example, sharing best practice and working with other schools to bring about sustained improvements to all schools in their area. We are determined to tackle the problem of endemic disadvantage that we inherited from Labour. Our pupil premium will rise progressively to £2.5 billion by 2014-15, supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and incentivising good schools to take on pupils from poorer backgrounds. The pupil premium will target extra funding specifically at the most deprived pupils to enable them to receive the support they need to reach their potential and to help schools to reduce inequalities.
We trust schools to make good decisions about how to spend the money to support deprived children and to narrow attainment gaps, and we need to, because the gaps that we inherited from the previous Government – the widening gap between rich and poor and the failure to address social mobility – were shocking. They were a damning indictment of that Administration.
Although some Opposition Members have woken up to the truth that the way to get the best is to put power in the hands of the teachers and to drive the system through the needs of learners, some are wedded to a failed past orthodoxy. I hope that Andy Burnham is not one of those who will defend the failures of the past; I hope that he will embrace reform and that he will come on the journey with us to a better schools system and a better future for our young people. I do not say that all those on the Opposition Benches are without heart. No party has a monopoly on concern or compassion, so I do not say that Labour Members are heartless – I say that their Front Benchers are witless.