Department for Education
Printable version

Michael Gove: an education system which works for every child

The Secretary of State for Education speaks to the British Chambers of Commerce about vocational education, literacy and numeracy.

We’re implementing a long-term plan for schools - rooted in evidence - driven by moral purpose.

We want every child to have a chance to flourish. We inherited an education system which was one of the most stratified and segregated in the developed world. Thousands of children - overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds - were receiving an inadequate education.

That had to change - and that’s why we have been implementing reforms to help all children succeed; targeting support on the most disadvantaged; executing a long-term educational plan, rooted in evidence of what works.

The most successful schools in this country - and the most successful education jurisdictions in the world - share particular qualities. Greater autonomy for those at the frontline; sharper, more intelligent accountability; and doing everything possible to drive up the standard of teaching.

Our plan for schools is focused on each of these objectives. And it’s working.

Since May 2010, the number of pupils taught in underperforming secondary schools has fallen by almost a quarter of a million.

And we’ve raised the bar on what counts as success - setting a tough new minimum floor standard, which no school should fall below.

In 2010, 407 secondary schools would have fallen below the floor. This year, it was just 154.

Still 154 too many - but a significant improvement.

Helping young people to get and create jobs

These improvements in state education will help deliver the sort of skills and knowledge that help young people to get the jobs of the future and, of course, to create the jobs of the future.

But there’s still more to do.

That’s why - as part of our long term plan for education - we are reforming qualifications. Every qualification that young people study for, academic or vocational, must be demanding, rigorous and a route to employment.

That simply wasn’t the case in the past.

There was a flight from quality. The number of pupils studying core academic subjects at GCSE - like maths, sciences, languages, English, history and geography - fell from 50% to 22%.

We’ve reversed that trend.

In four years, the number of pupils studying physics is up by a third; biology, almost a third; chemistry, up by a third; languages, by almost a fifth.

And there was a devaluation of vocational study. Allegedly ‘equivalent’ in size to two, three or more GCSEs, many vocational qualifications were not rigorous in content, accreditation or assessment.

Professor Alison Wolf, Britain’s leading expert on vocational education, investigated this scandal for this government.

As she recorded in 2011:

The staple offer for between a quarter and a third of the post-16 cohort is a diet of low-level vocational qualifications, most of which have little to no labour market value.

Among 16 to 19 year olds, the review estimates that at least 350,000 get little to no benefit from the post-16 education system.

She quoted the Principal of Central Bedfordshire College, Ali Hadawi, saying:

The changes wrought over recent years have seen a systematic de-skilling of the quality of provision with the emphasis on achievement of a qualification being primary and the dumbing down of the content, quality and rigour.

As Alison said:

All [qualifications] which are used, vocational or academic, should make serious demands of students, develop and accredit distinctive skills and attainments, facilitate progression post-16 and incorporate clearly established, and properly monitored, national standards. They must, therefore, have a strong element of external assessment. We know that, without regular external referencing, assessment standards in any subject invariably diverge across institutions and assessors.

Because vocational education lacked the rigour students need and the responsiveness employers demand, we asked Alison to review vocational qualifications and entrepreneur Doug Richard to look into apprenticeships.

Thanks to their hard work, we’re now delivering the most important reforms to vocational education since 1944.

Poor quality vocational qualifications - those not valued by employers or universities - are being removed from league tables altogether.

From this year, the only courses which will count in 14 to 16 league tables are those that are high quality, rigorous and proven to support progression.

New qualifications meeting these higher standards are being developed by awarding organisations in particularly sought-after sectors like engineering and construction.

And from September this year, new Tech Levels will provide a high-quality vocational alternative to A levels - each endorsed by professional associations or employers.

Along with a high-level maths qualification and an extended project, Tech Levels will count towards the Technical Baccalaureate, or TechBacc - an ambitious new benchmark for the most talented students.

Rigour in apprenticeships

We are also fundamentally reforming apprenticeships.

Your own figures show that the 53 accredited chambers of commerce delivered 3,476 apprenticeships and brokered a further 868.

That’s fantastic. But it doesn’t begin to meet the demand for high-quality apprenticeships.

I can understand why - in the past - bureaucracy put some of you off.

So we have tackled the bureaucracy. We’ve made it clear that employing an apprentice brings with it no additional requirements in terms of health and safety or wages than employing any other employee.

We have extended the apprenticeship grant for employers to support small firms making the commitment to recruit and train young apprentices - providing £85m in 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016.

And we continue to improve the National Apprenticeship Service’s online vacancy system and small business support team - all designed to help cut bureaucracy and make the system easier for business.

I can also appreciate that in the past, apprenticeship frameworks were designed to fit the needs of politicians and bureaucrats not employers.

So we are now ensuring that every new apprenticeship reflects the needs of business.

So-called ‘short duration’ apprenticeships have been stripped out, and poor-quality training has been removed; all apprenticeships are now real jobs, with more stretching qualifications in English and maths.

Old-style apprenticeship frameworks - long, complicated masterpieces of Sir-Humphrey-speak, scattered with ‘pathways’ and ‘personal learning and thinking skills’, listing every possible task and qualification apprentices could and should cover - are being replaced by new standards designed by employers, our trailblazers.

These trailblazers will publish new apprenticeship standards conceived, designed, created, tested and approved by employers.

Four hundred employers are now involved as trailblazers, including BAE, the National Grid, Cisco, Jaguar Land Rover, Nestlé, GlaxoSmithKline, Balfour Beatty and Santander - as well as, just as importantly, many of the small companies in their supply chains.

These trailblazers will publish new apprenticeship standards - short and simple, setting out exactly what it means to be fully competent, and how competency should be assessed - in a way that works for business, as well as for young people.

That means there is now no excuse for employers not to offer apprenticeships.

It’s our shared responsibility to ensure this country is both socially just and economically efficient - and it’s the best way I know of making sure you have the skilled workers you need to win in the global race.

Now is the time for a new level of ambition

The reforms we’ve introduced - to schools and apprenticeships - are raising standards and extending opportunity.

But there is still further to go.

Particularly in the most important vocational skills of all - English and maths.

So today I’d like to outline one simple national ambition we should set ourselves to ensure educational opportunity is genuinely extended to all.

We need to ensure we eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain.

In the same way as developing nations know they need to secure clean drinking water and eliminate malaria if their children are to flourish.

And in the same way as our forefathers more than 100 years ago knew they had to eradicate polio and TB if children were to flourish.

So we must ensure no child grows up in modern Britain with their futures irredeemably blighted by illiteracy and innumeracy.

That is why I am introducing policies to make sure children leave primary schools literate and numerate.

So by the end of year 1, every child is now checked to make sure they are decoding words fluently - helping teachers to make sure pupils are making progress in reading, and to identify any child who might need extra help.

Teachers will also be expected to assess pupils at the end of key stage 1 - when children are 6 or 7 - to ensure they are making appropriate progress in literacy and numeracy. A new test in spelling, punctuation and grammar will inform teachers’ assessment of writing and help keep children on course.

At the end of primary, we’re reforming tests in reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar and mathematics to make sure all children are literate and numerate. The basic standards all schools - and all children - must reach will be made more rigorous, with more demanding multiplication and division and more stress on fluent comprehension.

We want at least 85% of primary school pupils to reach the level of literacy and numeracy that means they’re on course to get good grades at GCSE.

Failure to secure a good maths or English GCSE renders any student effectively unemployable.

Yet in 2012, 44% of students failed to secure a GCSE pass in maths and English by the age of 16 and almost half never studied these subjects again afterwards.

So now, students who fail to achieve a GCSE pass in maths and English at 16 will continue to study those subjects afterwards; and those who achieve a pass are encouraged to take higher-level qualifications.

To help teachers spread best practice, we’re creating 30 new regional maths hubs - each led by an outstanding school, each offering support to all the schools in its local area in all aspects of maths education.

And they will take the lead in our new Chinese maths teacher exchange programme, inviting Chinese teachers to England and sending our leading maths teachers to China, to learn from each other - and to help make sure that our pupils get a maths education every bit as good as that in the most successful jurisdiction in the world.


The ambition I’m outlining today is demanding.

And if we’re to meet it we depend on the support of you and your members.

Whether by offering apprenticeships in your business, or shaping the next generation of apprenticeships as a trailblazer.

By offering work experience or careers guidance to local schools and colleges and offering traineeships to young people not yet ready for jobs or apprenticeship.

By volunteering as a school governor, demanding higher standards from your local schools and insisting government does not waver in this ambition.

And most of all - by committing yourself to support our national mission to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy and make opportunity more equal for all.

It is in all our interests that we ensure the next generation secure the quality of education they need to flourish fully as individuals and contribute fully to our society.

That is my mission - and I know it is yours.

Thank you.


Channel website:

Share this article

Latest News from
Department for Education