Britain, the great meritocracy: Prime Minister’s speech

When I stood in Downing Street
as Prime Minister for the first time this Summer, I set out my mission to build a country
that works for everyone. Today I want to talk a little more
about what that means and lay out my vision
for a truly meritocratic Britain that puts the interests of ordinary,
working class people first. We are facing a moment
of great change as a nation. As we leave the European Union, we must define an ambitious
new role for ourselves in the world. That involves asking ourselves
what kind of country we want to be: a confident, global trading nation that continues to play
its full part on the world stage. But at the same time, I believe
we have a precious opportunity to step back and ask
some searching questions about what kind of country
we want to be here at home too. In fact, it’s not just an opportunity,
but a duty. Because one thing is clear. When the British people
voted in the referendum, they did not just choose
to leave the European Union. They were also expressing a
far more profound sense of frustration about aspects of life in Britain
and the way in which politics and politicians have
failed to respond to their concerns. Some voted for the first
time in more than thirty years. Some for the first time ever. And they were inspired to do
so because they saw a chance to reject the politics
of ‘business as usual’ and to demand real, profound change. Fed up with being ignored or told that their priorities
were somehow invalid, based on ignorance
and misunderstanding, or even on occasion
that they were simply wrong to voice the concerns that they did, they took their opportunity
to send a very clear message: they will not be ignored anymore. They want to take back control of
the things that matter in their lives. They want a government that listens,
understands and is on their side. They want change. And this Government
is going to deliver it. Everything we do will be driven, not
by the interests of the privileged few. Not by those with the loudest voices,
the special interests, the greatest wealth
or the access to influence. This Government’s priorities are those
of ordinary, working class people. People for whom life
sometimes can be a struggle, but who get on with things
without complaint. They get on with their jobs — sometimes
two or even three of them — because they have families
to feed and support, bills to pay and because to work for a
fair reward is the right thing to do. They get on with their lives quietly,
going about their business, going out to work, raising families,
helping neighbours, making their communities what they are. They don’t ask for much,
but they want to know that the people that make the big
decisions are on their side, working for them. They want to believe that everyone
plays by the same rules and things are fair. And above all they want to believe that
if they uphold their end of the deal — they do the right thing, they work
hard, they pay their taxes — then tomorrow will be better than today and their children
will have a fair chance in life, the chance to go as far
as their talents will take them. These are not outrageous demands
or ridiculous desires, but for too many of these people
today life does not seem fair. They are the people
who made real sacrifices after the financial crash in 2008,
though they were in no way responsible. They wonder if others — some of whom really do bear
responsibility for the crash — did the same. More than anything else,
they worry — truly worry — that the changing world around them means that their children
and grandchildren won’t have the same opportunities
they have enjoyed in life. They deserve a better deal. And to give them that, we should take
this opportunity to step back and pose a fundamental question: what kind of country — what kind
of society – do we want to be? I am clear about the answer. I want Britain to be the world’s
great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent
and their hard work will allow. I want us to be a country where
everyone plays by the same rules; where ordinary, working class people
have more control over their lives and the chance to share
fairly in the prosperity of the nation. And I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit
not privilege; where it’s your talent and hard work
that matter not where you were born, who your parents are
or what your accent sounds like. Let us not underestimate what it will
take to create that great meritocracy. It means taking on some big challenges,
tackling some vested interests. Overcoming barriers that have been
constructed over many years. It means not being afraid
to think differently about what disadvantage means, who we
want to help and how we can help them. Because where once we reached for simple ways of labelling people
disadvantaged and were quick to pose simple —
and often fairly blunt — solutions, in these modern times disadvantage
is much more complex. It’s often hidden
and less easy to identify. It’s caused by factors
that are more indirect and tougher to tackle than ever before. But tackle it we must if we are
to give ordinary, working class people the better deal they deserve. It means marking a significant shift in the way that government
works in Britain too. Because government and politicians
have for years talked the language of social justice —
where we help the very poorest – and social mobility — where we help
the brightest among the poor. But to make Britain a great meritocracy
we must move beyond this agenda and deliver real social reform
across every layer of society so that those whom the system would
currently miss — those just above the threshold
for help today yet those who are by no means rich
or well off — are given the help they need. It means putting government firmly on
the side of not only the poorest in our society, important though
that is and will remain, but also of those in Britain who are
working hard but just about managing. It means helping to make their lives
a little easier; giving them greater control over
the issues they care about the most. This is the change we need. It will mean changing
some of the philosophy underpinning how government
thinks and acts. It will mean recalibrating how we
approach policy development to ensure that everything we do as government
helps to give a fair chance to those who are just getting by — while still helping those
who are even more disadvantaged. I don’t pretend this change will be
easy — change rarely is — but this is the change we need if we are to make Britain the great
meritocracy I want it to be. Over the coming weeks and months the Government will set out an
ambitious programme of economic and social reform
that will help us make this change and build a true meritocracy
in our country. But there is no more important
place to start than education. Because if the central concern ordinary
working class people have is that their children will not enjoy
the same opportunities they have had in life,
we need to ensure that there is a good
school place for every child, and education provision that caters to the individual needs
and abilities of every pupil. We start from a position of strength. This Government has a proud
record of school reform. We have opened up the system, introducing a real
diversity of provision. We have schools where teachers and headteachers are free to make
the decisions that are best for them. And through successful policies such as a renewed focus on learning
the basics of reading in primary schools, and initiatives to help young people pursue a strong academic
core of subjects at secondary level, we are ensuring that every child
has the opportunity to develop the core knowledge
that underpins everything else. We have put control in the hands
of parents and headteachers, and encouraged people from all walks of
life who are passionate about education to bring their best ideas
and innovations to our school system. The Academies and Free Schools
movement overseen by pioneers such as Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove
has been a huge success and begun to build an education system
fit for the future. As a result, there are more good
or outstanding schools today than ever before in our country. And there are now more
than 1.4 million more pupils in schools rated good
or outstanding than in 2010. Our curriculum reforms mean that the
proportion of pupils taking core academic subjects at GCSE
is up by almost four-fifths. We are driving up school standards to match the best international
comparisons, with a record number of pupils securing a place at one of our
world-class universities this Summer. We can be proud of these achievements
but there is still a long way to go. Because for too many children
a good school remains out of reach. There are still 1.25 million attending primary and secondary schools
in England which are rated by Ofsted as
requiring improvement or inadequate. If schools across the North
and Midlands had the same average standards
as those in the South, nearly 200,000 more children would be
attending good schools. Let’s be honest about
what these statistics mean. They mean that for far too many
children in Britain, the chance they have in life is
determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have. And they mean that for far too many
ordinary working class people, no matter how hard they work, how many hours they put in or how many
sacrifices they make, they cannot be confident that their children will get
the chances they deserve. For when you are working two jobs
and struggling to make ends meet, it is no good being told that you can choose a better school
for your children if you move to a different area
or pay to go private. Those aren’t choices that you can make. And they are not choices
that you should have to make. So we need to go further,
building on and extending our reforms so that we can truly say that there
will be a good school place for every child, and one that caters
to their individual needs. But as we do it we also need to change
our philosophy and approach, because at the moment
the school system works if you’re well off and can
buy your way into the school you want, and it provides extra help and support
if you’re from a disadvantaged family. If you’re eligible
for Free School Meals, and your parents earn
less than £16,000 a year, then there is extra help on offer. That is good and right —
and as long as I am Prime Minister, the Pupil Premium for the poorest
children will remain. But the Free School Meals measure only captures a relatively small
number of pupils, whose parents are
on income-related benefits. If we are going to make the change
we need and build a great
meritocracy in Britain, we need to broaden our perspective and do more for the hidden
disadvantaged children whose parents are on modest incomes,
who do not qualify for such benefits but who are, nevertheless,
still only just getting by. If you’re earning nineteen, twenty,
twenty one thousand pounds a year, you’re not rich.
You’re not well off. And you should know
you have our support too. At the moment there is
no way to differentiate between the school experience
of children from these families and those from the wealthiest
ten per cent. Policy has been skewed by the focus only on those in receipt
of Free School Meals, when the reality
is that there are thousands of children from ordinary working class families who are being let down by the lack
of available good school places. Putting this right means finding
a way to identify these children and measuring their attainment
and progress within the school system. That work is underway and is central to my vision of a school
system that truly works for everyone. But we must also deliver
a radical increase in the capacity of the school system
so that these families can be sure of their children
getting good school places. And this is really important. Because I don’t just want
to see more school places but more good school places. And I don’t just want
to see more new schools, but more good new schools
that each in their way contribute to a diversity of provision
that caters to the needs and abilities of each individual child, whoever
they are and wherever they are from. Every child should be given
the opportunity to develop the crucial academic core. And thanks to our reforms
that is increasingly the case. But people understand
that every child is different too, with different talents,
different interests, different dreams. To help them realise their potential
and achieve those dreams we need a school system
with the capacity and capability to respond
to what they need. So as we radically expand the number of good school places
available to all families – not just those who can afford
to buy an expensive house, pay for an expensive private school, or fund the extra tuition their child
needs to succeed – I want to encourage more people, schools and institutions with something
to offer to come forward and help. In the last six years, we have seen individuals
and communities put staggering amounts of time
and effort into setting up good new schools. Some of the best state schools,
charities, universities, private schools, and businesses have
stepped forward to get involved. And, increasingly, the best state
schools are sponsoring the least good. This has been a revolution
in our schools system. But with one and a quarter million
children still attending schools that are struggling, we need to
do much more to increase the capacity of the system so every child can get
the education they deserve. So let’s now build on the success
of school reform, let’s encourage others
to play their part, and let’s remove the barriers they face
so we can do more. Let’s sweep away those barriers
and encourage more people to join us in the task of delivering
a good school place for every child. Let’s build
a truly dynamic school system where schools and institutions
learn from one another, support one another
and help one another. Let’s offer a diverse range of good
schools that ensure the individual talents and abilities of
every child are catered for. That is my ambition. And there are four specific proposals I want to talk about today
that I believe will help. Firstly, I want to build on the success
we have already experienced when some of our great universities
have stepped in to help by sponsoring or supporting a local school. Universities have a huge
amount to offer England’s schools. They have been part of the fabric
of our education system since the thirteenth century and have had a profound impact
on our schools over generations. Recently we have seen
The University of Cambridge establish The University
of Cambridge Primary School and The University of Birmingham
open an impressive new Free School for secondary school pupils
and sixth formers. The new specialist Sixth Form, King’s
College London Mathematics School, is already performing impressively and the University of Brighton
is involved in sponsoring more than a dozen different primary
and secondary schools. These are the kinds of innovation
I want to encourage. This kind of active engagement in building the capacity
of our school system is in my view far more effective
than spending huge sums on bursaries and other financial support that tackle
the symptoms but not the cause. The right for a university to charge
the higher level of tuition fee has always been dependent
on their ability to fulfil specified access requirements. And this year,
in fulfilling these requirements, they are expected to spend
over £400 million on bursaries and other forms
of financial support for students. Yet the evidence is clear: it is the attainment of pupils at school that is the over-riding factor
in predicting access to university. I am not saying
there is no place for bursaries. But overall, I do think the balance
has tilted too far. We need to go to the root
of the problem, which is that there are not enough
students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from ordinary families
fulfilling their potential with the grades to get
into the best universities. So I want our universities
to do more to help us to improve the quality of schools so that more students of all
backgrounds have the grades, the subjects, and the confidence,
to apply to top universities and to be successful in their exams
in the first place. So the Government will reform
university fair access requirements and say that universities should
actively strengthen state school attainment – by sponsoring a state school
or setting up a new Free School. And over time we will extend this
to the sponsorship or establishment
of more than one school, so that in the future
we see our universities sponsoring thriving school chains in
every town and city in the country. Second, I want to remove the obstacles that stop more good faith schools
from opening. Britain has a long history
of faith schools delivering outstanding education. They already account for around a third
of all mainstream schools in England. They are popular with parents and significantly more likely
than other schools to be rated by Ofsted
as Good or Outstanding. I believe we should confidently
promote them and the role they play
in a diverse school system. Yet for Catholic schools in particular
there are barriers in their way. When a faith-designated Free School
is oversubscribed, it must limit the number of pupils
it selects on the basis of faith to 50 per cent. The intention is to improve
the diversity of the school’s intake but in practice it has little
impact on many Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools because they tend not
to appeal to parents of other faiths. So despite the best intentions, the rule is failing in its objective
to promote integration. But it does prevent
new Catholic schools opening, because the Catholic Church believes it
contravenes its own rules for a Catholic Bishop not to prioritise
the admission of Catholic pupils. This is especially frustrating because existing Catholic schools
are more ethnically diverse than other faith schools, more likely to be located
in deprived communities, more likely to be rated Good
or Outstanding by Ofsted, and there is growing demand for them. So we will remove this 50 per cent rule to allow the growth in capacity that
Catholic schools can offer. Instead we will consult on a new set of much more effective
requirements to ensure that faith schools
are properly inclusive and make sure their pupils mix with children of other faiths
and backgrounds. Of course, there must be strict and
properly enforced rules to ensure that every new faith school operates
in a way that supports British values. And we should explore new ways
of using the school system to promote greater integration
within our society generally. We will encourage the grouping together
of mono-racial and mono-religious schools within wider multi-racial
and multi-religious trusts. This will make it easier for children
from different backgrounds in more divided communities
to mix between schools, while respecting religious differences. We will explore ways in which schools
can enter into twinning arrangements with other schools not of their faith, through sharing lessons or joint
extra-curricular activities to bring young people
from different schools together. And we will consult on the idea
of placing an independent member or director who is of a different faith
or no faith at all on the governing body
of new faith schools. We will also explore new requirements
for new faith schools to prove that parents of other faiths
would be happy to send their children to the school through
a proper process of consultation. But fundamentally I believe
it is wrong to deny families the opportunity to send
their children to a school that reflects their religious values
if that’s what they choose. And it’s right to encourage
faith communities — especially those with a proven record
of success, like the Catholics — to play their full part in building
the capacity of our schools. Third, I want to encourage some of our
biggest independent schools to bring their knowledge, expertise
and resources to bear to help improve the quality and
capacity of schools for those who cannot afford to pay. This is entirely in keeping with the ethos that lies at the heart
of many of these institutions. Most of the major public schools
started out as the route by which poor boys could reach
the professions. The nature of their intake may have
changed today — indeed these schools have become more
and more divorced from normal life. Between 2010 and 2015 their fees rose
four times faster than average earnings growth,
while the percentage of their pupils who come from overseas has gone up
by 33% since 2008. But I know that their commitment to giving something back
to the wider community remains. These are great
schools with a lot to offer and I certainly don’t believe you solve the divide between the rich
and the rest by abolishing or demolishing them. You do it by extending their reach
and asking them to do more as a condition of their privileged
position to help all children. Through their charitable status, private schools collectively reduce
their tax bills by millions every year. And I want to consult on how we can
amend Charity Commission guidance for independent schools
to enact a tougher test on the amount of public benefit
required to maintain charitable status. It’s important to state that this will
be proportionate to the size and scale of the school in question. Not every school is an Eton
or a Harrow. Many public schools
are nowhere near that size. Smaller independent schools
who do not have the capacity to take on full sponsorship of a local
state school will be asked to provide more limited help such as
direct school-to-school support where appropriate. This could include supporting teaching
in minority subjects such as further maths or classics, which state schools often struggle
to make viable. It could include ensuring their senior leaders become directors
of Multi-Academy Trusts; providing greater access
to their facilities and providing sixth-form scholarships to a proportion of pupils in year 11
at each local school. But for those with the capacity
and capability, we will ask them to go further and actually sponsor or set up a new
government-funded school in the state sector and take
responsibility for running it and ensuring its success. Alternatively, we will ask them
to fund a number of places at their own school themselves for those from modest backgrounds
who cannot afford to pay the fees. We know this can work. For example, Westminster School
is the key partner in sponsoring Harris Westminster
Sixth Form, where students at the free school
share the facilities and teaching expertise
of Westminster School. In my own constituency,
Eton College sponsors Holyport College, offering Holyport pupils
access to its sports facilities and the chance to join
its educational activities. And before it became
a state funded academy, Belvedere School in Liverpool
worked with the Sutton Trust to create an Open Access Scheme where places were awarded purely
on the basis of academic merit, and parents were then asked
to pay on a sliding scale of fees fairly tailored
according to their means. I want all independent
schools with the appropriate capacity and capability
to take these kinds of steps. I want them to play a major role
in creating more good school places for children
from ordinary working families; because this Government is about a
Britain that works for everyone — not just a privileged few. There is one final area where we have placed obstacles
in the way of good new schools — obstacles that I believe
we need to take away. The debate over selective schools
has raged for years. But the only place it has got us
to is a place where selection exists if you’re wealthy —
if you can afford to go private — but doesn’t exist if you’re not. We are effectively saying to poorer and some of the most disadvantaged
children in our country that they can’t have
the kind of education their richer counterparts can enjoy. What is ‘just’ about that? Where is the meritocracy in a system that advantages the privileged
few over the many? How can a meritocratic Britain
let this situation stand? Politicians — many of whom benefited
from the very kind of education they now seek to deny to others —
have for years put their own dogma and ideology before the interests
and concerns of ordinary people. For we know that grammar schools
are hugely popular with parents. We know they are good
for the pupils that attend them. Indeed, the attainment gap
between rich and poor pupils is reduced to almost zero for children
in selective schools. And we know that they want to expand. They provide a stretching education
for the most academically able, regardless of their background,
and they deliver outstanding results. In fact, 99 per cent of existing
selective schools are rated Good or Outstanding —
and 80 per cent are Outstanding, compared with just twenty per cent
of state schools overall. So we help no one — not least those who
can’t afford to move house or pay for a private education —
by saying to parents who want a selective education
for their child that we won’t let them have it. There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving
our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them
to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy,
we should not be apologetic about stretching the most
academically able to the very highest standards
of excellence. We already have selection to help
achieve this in specialist disciplines like music and sport, giving
exceptionally talented young people access to the facilities and training
that can help them become world class. I think we should have more of this. But we should also take
the same approach to support the most
academically gifted too. Frankly, it is completely illogical to make it illegal
to open good new schools. So I want to relax the restrictions that stop selective
schools from expanding, that deny parents the right to have a new selective school opened
where they want one, and that stop existing non-selective
schools to become selective in the right circumstances
and where there is demand. In return, we will ensure that these
schools contribute meaningfully to raising outcomes for all pupils
in every part of the system. In practice this could mean taking a proportion of pupils from
lower income households, so that selective education is not
reserved for those with the means to move into a catchment area or pay
for tuition to pass the test. They could, as a condition of opening
a new selective school, be asked to establish a good,
new non-selective school. Others may be asked to establish
a primary feeder school in an area with a high density of lower income
households to widen access. They might even partner
with an existing non-selective school within a multi-academy trust or sponsor a currently underperforming
non-selective academy. But the principle is clear: selective schools have a part to play in helping to expand the
capacity of our school system and they have the ability to cater
to the individual needs of every child. So the Government will make up to £50
million a year available to support the expansion of good
or outstanding existing grammars. Now I know this will be the source
of much debate in the consultation over the coming months,
so I want to address very directly some of the key arguments made by those who oppose the expansion
of grammar schools. First, there are those
who fear this could lead to the return of a binary system, as we
had in the past with secondary moderns. But this fear is unfounded: there will
be no return to secondary moderns. As I have set out today,
far from a binary system we are supporting
the most diverse school system we have ever had in our country. From free schools sponsored by
universities and independent schools, to faith schools and selective schools, the diversity of high quality school
provision means we will be able to cater properly for
the different needs of all pupils and give parents real control over the kind of school
they want for their children. We do not want to see whole new
parts of the country where the choice of schools is binary. So we will use the approvals process
to prevent that from happening. Second, there are those who argue
that selective schools tend to recruit children
from more affluent backgrounds. The problem here is not selective
schools per se but rather the way that wealthier
families can already dominate access to the schools of their choice
through selection by house price. I want to stop that
and new grammars can help. We are going to ask new grammars to demonstrate that they will attract
pupils from different backgrounds, for example as I said, by taking a proportion of children
from lower income households. And existing grammars
will be expected to do more too by working with local primary
schools to help children from more
disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. Third, there are those who argue that grammars
don’t actually select on ability because wealthy families
can pay tutors to help their children
get through the tests. This might have been the case
in the past with the old eleven plus. But it does not have
to be the case today. While there is no such thing
as a tutor proof test, many selective schools are already
employing much smarter tests that assess the true potential
of every child. So new grammars will be able to select
in a fair and meritocratic way, not on the ability of parents to pay. Fourth, there are those who worry about
the cliff-edge of selection at 11. Some fear it is too early,
some fear it is too late. The truth is that it doesn’t have
to be a cliff-edge at all. This is back in the old mindset
of the grammar schools of the past. A modern, meritocratic education system
needs to be much more flexible and agile to respond
to the needs of every child. So we will demand that new grammars
make the most of their freedom to be flexible over how students
move between schools, encouraging this to happen at different
ages such as 14 and 16 as well as 11. This means that children
who are at a non-selective school sponsored by a grammar might join
the grammar for specific subjects or specialisms where they themselves
are outstanding — or they might move to the grammar
full-time later than aged 11, based on their performance
at their current school. Finally, people get lost
in the argument about whether the grammar schools
of the 1950s and 60s improved social mobility or not. But I want to focus on the new grammars
of the future: those that will be just one element
of a truly diverse system which taken as a whole can give every
child the support they need to go as far as their talents
can take them. And give every parent access
to a good school place for their child. This is the true test of schools
that work for everyone. And the true test
of a meritocratic society. There has been a lot of speculation
in the last few weeks, but as you now know
this is not a proposal to go back to a binary model
of grammars and secondary moderns but to build on our increasingly
diverse schools system. It is not a proposal to go back
to the 1950s but to look to the future, and that future I believe
is an exciting one. It is a future
in which every child should have access
to a good school place. And a future in which Britain’s
education system shifts decisively to support
ordinary working class families. These families are not
asking for the world. They just want to know that their
children and grandchildren will enjoy the opportunities
they have enjoyed and be given the chance to go as far
as their talents will take them. Unhindered by background
or circumstance. And by the artificial barriers
some want to put in their way. In a country that works for everyone
it doesn’t matter where you were born, or how much your parents earn. If you work hard
and do the right thing, you will be able to go
as far as you can. I want this country to be a great
meritocracy. I want to see more houses built,
better productivity so we can have more well-paid jobs,
more economic growth not just in the South East of England but across the whole country
to help more people get on. But more than anything else, I want to see children from ordinary,
working class families given the chances their richer
contemporaries take for granted. That means we need more great schools. This is the plan to deliver them and to set Britain on the path to being
the great meritocracy of the world. Thank you.

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