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Education Secretary speech at Education World Forum 2024

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan's address at the Education World Forum in London (20 May 2024).

Good afternoon, and welcome to education world forum 2024.  

It’s wonderful to be back and spending this time together as education world forum was a genuine highlight for me last year. It’s good to see so many familiar faces. 

This forum is about sharing the best of what we do.   

As a global community, we face many similar challenges in education.   

Some are the after-effects of covid.  Others stem from rapid advances in technology. And then there’s climate change:  how do we build a sustainable world for future generations?   

The answer is clear: share what you know works.   

Whilst our countries and cultures are unique, we can all learn from each other.    

The UK government has done this in education in the last decade, with some great results.    

As a country, we weren’t always known for our maths prowess.  

English pupils ranked 27th in the world for maths in 2009, according to PISA.   

We turned to Singapore, a high performer, for advice on raising our standards.   

Their maths mastery technique had been shown to deliver high attainment in mixed-ability classes.   

So we introduced it.   

Nine years later we’d climbed to 17th in world.   

And in the PISA rankings released last year, we’d reached 11th in the world.  

I’m not here to tell you how good we are at maths – though I’ll happily give credit for that to our brilliant teachers and school leaders.    

My point is: if you ask around and share what works, things can and will get better.   

For some problems, we need to ask, where is the evidence pointing?   

Let’s head in that direction.  

It’s something to think about when we’re examining the big challenges in education over the next few days.   

Let’s look at an example of data-driven change.  

One where the right technology has made a fundamental difference.  

Covid was a shared experience.  

And together we’re facing the same post-covid challenges - particularly in pupil absence from school.  

Regular school attendance isn’t just about children’s daily learning.   

It boosts their sociability, wellbeing and their development.   

We recognised this over a decade ago, and we worked hard to improve attendance.   

Between 2010 and 2020, absences in English schools fell from 6% to 4.8%, representing 15 million more days in school per year.  

But along with so much else, covid stole our progress.  

And I know there’s a lot of agreement in this room, because school systems worldwide are affected. The causes are complex, but the outcomes are the same.  

Less time in school equals poorer outcomes for children.  

We’ve tackled this problem by upgrading and expanding our data collection. This allows us to see the shape of the problem.   

Is it a lot of children missing the odd day, or a small number of children missing weeks, or is it both?  

Starting with just a few schools in spring 2021, we now have a detailed, daily picture of absence across the country.   

I can look at a school in Liverpool in the North of England, like the one I attended, and see the attendance levels for every class.   

In fact from September, I will be able to look at any class, in any school, across the whole country, on any day, in real time.  

What a fantastic tool.  Because once you have the information, you can act on it.  

That’s why we’ve made the data available to all schools and local authorities.   

Education leaders can now see the full picture in their area, identify persistent or emerging patterns and take action.  

It is that that has helped us understand, for example, that attendance drops when children move into the second year of secondary school – particularly for girls. We are now working with schools to target this pattern.  

We’re publishing the local and national data, because we want to encourage regional comparisons and collaboration to find what works. It comes back to what I said earlier. There are ways forward, and they need to be shared.  

This problem should not be labelled as inevitable or as unsolvable.   

Thanks to these measures, and the hard work of school leaders, our plan is working. New data shows that 375,000 more children across all year groups were in school almost every day last year.  

The organisation for economic co-operation and development recognised our efforts in a policy paper published last month, calling it a comprehensive strategy.   

There is more to do, with absence remaining higher than before the pandemic.   

But once you can measure a problem you can start to solve it.   

We’ve begun discussing our findings with our friends in New Zealand, and are keen to share them with any delegation here who’d find them useful.   

Just a few years ago, such real-time data collection would have been science fiction, but technology continues to rapidly change the way we live.   

Artificial intelligence will likewise transform our lives.    

But I agree with the great British AI pioneer Demis Hassabis, who says:  

“You look at today, us using all of our smartphones and other devices – we effortlessly adapt to these new technologies. AI is going to be another one of those changes, just like that.”   

We are already starting to use AI unthinkingly, as an integral part of daily life. But it can also be used to overcome some of the biggest challenges in education.   

How do we know which tools will make that difference?   

As with attendance, we need to the gather data and evidence that points towards effective interventions.  

That’s why we established the education endowment foundation in 2011.  

They are currently testing how AI can be used effectively to enhance primary school children’s outcomes.  

This is a vibrant market, with lots of companies coming to the table with  AI-based education solutions.   

Maths-Whizz, an online tutoring programme, will be evaluated on how much it helps six- to ten-year-olds improve their numeracy.   

Another, DreamBox Reading Plus, supports children’s fluency, comprehension and vocabulary via an online programme.  

I know from my 30 years in international business that you only get ahead if you get in early. AI is too great an opportunity to leave to Silicon Valley alone.   

We are getting ahead by making sure that the AI used in schools really works and suits our needs. Last year I attended a 2 day hackathon for teachers to road test AI tools in real world scenarios. After all, they know what truly works in our classrooms.   

And Oak National Academy, our independent provider of resources to support curriculum delivery in England, is developing a new AI-powered lesson planning tool.    This ‘AI Lesson Assistant’ called Aila is being designed to help teachers create and adapt their teaching resources, saving them valuable time.   

Unlike generic large language models, it is being trained specifically on the English national curriculum and on Oak’s own resources. This will ensure the lessons produced are of high quality and tailored to the English context.  

This is where the best evidence for educational AI has taken us so far.   

And we’re keen to share what we’ve learned, so other education systems can benefit from our insights and we can work together.  

Safety matters as much as effectiveness, as the prime minister made clear at the last year’s global AI safety summit. It’s why we’ve introduced the AI safety institute, so that no country is caught off-guard by its rapid advance.   

Our department for science and innovation is currently hosting a virtual AI summit with South Korea – because only by sharing national developments through international dialogue will we stay on top of developments in this field.  

Of the challenges I’ve referred to, none is more urgent than climate change.   

Education needs to play its part, giving children a broad understanding of a clean, sustainable future. That’s why we launched the UK Sustainability and climate change strategy in 2022, setting out the education system’s crucial role in tackling climate change.  

Today I am announcing the extension of the UK’s climate ambassadors scheme. Regional climate ambassadors currently help schools and colleges draw-up climate action plans and improve their sustainability. Over the next two years we will recruit over 1000 volunteers as climate ambassadors, to support over 2,500 education settings.   

Our national education nature park scheme allows each school site to see themselves as a contributing part of the biodiversity and climate resilience of the country’s collective education campus.  

Like countries participating in international climate discussions, we want schools to see themselves as part of a broader whole. These networks are designed to get them sharing ideas and trading creative solutions.   

Our COP26 presidency brought education and environment ministers together for the first time, securing commitment to closer collaboration. On the international stage, we’re working closely with partners to drive change.   

Sharing our solutions is the solution to unblocking climate change challenges.  

We worked closely with UNESCO to develop the greening education partnership, which launched at COP27. Over 80 countries and 1000 organisations are now members, co-ordinating climate change action and promoting sustainable development though education. If your nation has yet to sign-up, please talk to UK ministers and officials about what we can achieve together through the partnership.   

Education as a climate change solution was a central theme at COP28.  

There we launched the education and climate declaration, together with UNESCO and the global partnership for education. Over 40 countries endorsed it prior to launch, demonstrating their commitment to build climate-smart education.   

We hope education will continue to be a prominent theme at COP29 in Baku – and at future COPs – providing a broader approach to a problem that today’s pupils will inherit.   

Sharing and developing big ideas is something we also encourage closer to home.  

We are home to some of the world’s top universities, who benefit from strong international ties. Indeed, the UK has educated 58 current and recent world leaders. 

We have four of the global top 10 universities, and 17 in the top 100.   

Students travel from over 200 nations to study here. And our universities lead the world in producing valuable research: we rank 1st in the G7 for publications’ impact.  

The UK remains the destination of choice for many students. Attracting the brightest from around the world is good for our universities, and supports the creation of more places for domestic students.  

Of course, studying abroad is expensive and out-of-reach for many.   

Transnational education eliminates the need to travel for a UK degree.   

Demand for it is growing; in 2021-22, 160 UK universities delivered transnational education to over 550,000 students in more than 200 countries and territories.   

It’s a solution that’s successfully unlocking the global potential of British institutions, and giving broader access to educational opportunities.   

To support this, the sector has today published a document on our offer to international partners. Entitled ‘unlocking global potential: UK education and skills international offer’, it’s essential reading for any country considering future partnerships with our education institutions.  

In the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about the pandemic.   

We’ve now moved beyond the covid crisis, and our immediate response.   

But there are still challenges that remain, including children’s mental health and school attendance.   

These are joined by the other great issues of our age: introducing children to technology safely – whilst not allowing it to damage or dominate their lives.   

And accelerating climate action and awareness to preserve their future world.  

We come from different countries, but we share many fundamental aims.   

We want children to get the most out of their education – whatever barriers they face.  

How do we limit the impact of the challenges mentioned above?  

Remember the story of maths in England over the last decade.  

Sharing what is known to work can overcome stubborn problems and spread success.   

Real change is hard. But someone showing you a proven way forward, guided by good evidence, can make it easier.  

We have worked together successfully in the past.  

This is how we must tackle the current and upcoming education challenges of this century.  

​ As Malala Yousafzai has said:  

“There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems. It’s just one, and it’s education.” 

As we gather together to discuss education solutions this week, remember to share what you’ve seen work in your country.  

Children’s futures rely on all of our solutions.  

Thank you.


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