The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP: Preparing young people for life in modern Britain

March 10, 2015

The last time I spoke at one of these I made waves by saying I thought our Party needed to talk a bit more about what we’re for than what we’re against. You might not think that a particularly remarkable statement. So perhaps the fact a few journalists wrote it up says much about the impact Bright Blue has had on the political scene and on political debate generally.

This is one of the most exciting think tanks around, with an important programme of research and a clear vision about the future of our Party. It’s good to be here among friends this evening, to be able to accept the kind offer of becoming co-President, and to be able to talk to you about such an important theme.

This is a speech about the future. But I want to begin by taking you back.

It’s actually frightening as I look around the room to think that some of you may not really remember the leadership contest of 2005.

But I do. And during that campaign – as the two candidates toured the country over many months – each developed a core speech to deliver at every rally, every hustings, every event.

And I always remember a few key lines from David Cameron’s.

Elections, he said, are about a simple choice. One party talks about the past and they lose. The other talks about the future, and they win.

That’s as true today as it’s ever been.

And it’s why in this election, we are firmly focussed on the future… with a positive and aspirational message about the difference our long-term economic plan is making – and will continue to make – to people’s lives.

We had to make some difficult decisions when we came in. But I believe people respect us for that. And now as people focus on the choice – the competence of David Cameron and his team on the one hand, and the chaos of Ed Miliband on the other – they are increasingly coming to realise what is at stake. That’s why it’s essential that we all – everyone in this room tonight, and every party member, MP, candidate and supporter beyond – stick to the strategy, support the campaign, and remain disciplined, deliberate and determined to drive home the message of our long-term economic plan every day between now and the 7th of May.

Our plan is a plan with a purpose: to build a better, brighter future for Britain.

The plan is the method; but the opportunity to change Britain for the better is the motivation. That’s what brought me into politics and why we’re all here. Not to stand still or hark back to some mythical golden age, but to move forward, to progress, to change things for the better.

But I want to argue tonight that if we are to do that, we must face up to and embrace the world as it is – not as it was. That’s the only way we can begin to shape it into the world we want it to be. This can sometimes be a challenge because it involves facing difficult truths, making difficult decisions, making difficult judgements about how far the writ of government should run.

In the very first statement I made as Education Secretary back in July, I said that the abiding principle of this government’s education policy is that schools should prepare young people for life in modern Britain, and indeed the modern world.

You may think this uncontroversial, but you would be surprised. People are wary of the word ‘modern’. They suspect an ulterior motive. For them, it conjures up images of all the things they are suspicious of: diversity, multiculturalism, globalisation. Modernity for some people is a dirty world.

As one commentator put it “that ‘modern’ is redundant and showy-offy. It is politically correct. It is meaningless”.

That commentator is wrong. The word ‘modern’ is in fact essential.

Because it signals that we are now in a different age. It shows that the world has changed. It says that there is something new and different about the society in which we find ourselves – and that it makes new and different demands of us.

If we don’t recognise this – if we don’t come to terms with and understand the realities of modern society – then what hope do we as politicians and government have of responding to the fresh challenges those realities present?

We would instead continue to meet modern challenges with old-fashioned solutions. We would become ever more ineffective and ignored. Most importantly, we will fail to rise to the most important duty of any government and the reason I as a Conservative wanted to be elected: to create the conditions in which every person has the chance to fulfil their potential and succeed in life.

Unlike that commentator, I am profoundly optimistic about modern Britain.

This country, though small in size, is large in ambition. I do not accept the narrative of decline or the arguments of those that say our best days are behind us. We continue to set an example here at home and to play a leading role internationally. We continue to defy the odds and punch above our weight. We continue to be a beacon that shines around the world.

Wherever you travel, people welcome and embrace you because you are British. Our culture and our society transcend borders. In the furthest backwaters of the world, this small country is known and loved.

We have created and are home to some of the world’s leading and most recognisable brands. You only need to look at the nightly news to see pictures of young children from across the world draped in Manchester United or Chelsea football shirts for example.

We are the jobs factory of Europe. The City of London continues to be one of the world’s premier financial centres. And because of the strength of our economy, we are able to continue to fund the vital institutions that we hold dear – institutions like the NHS that, with their spirit of selflessness and social justice, echo around the world.

Just the other week we saw that the number of people seeking to come to live and work in our country has increased. And while it is absolutely right that people who do travel to live here must have a job and pay their way, we should acknowledge that they’re doing so because of the strength of our economy, our culture, our society. These are the things that make modern Britain an attractive home for so many of whatever nationality, colour or creed.

We are a small but proud country and we can face the future with confidence.

But we should acknowledge that for many people modern Britain can be a rather overwhelming place too.

Particularly if you feel excluded, marginalised or under threat on account of your background, religion, sexuality, or race.

If you’re one of the white working-class children in a school that suffers from what the Education Select Committee described in a report last year as a “poverty of expectation”.

If you’re someone seeing your community change with the introduction of new voices and faces, while you struggle to find where you fit.

Sadly increasingly, if you are Jewish and living in fear of a new wave of anti-semitism that we all hoped had been consigned to the past.

Modern Britain can be an overwhelming place for many people in many ways. But I think it can be particularly overwhelming if you are young.

Because growing up in Britain today is no easy task. Yes, there may be more opportunities than ever before. And yes, some argue that today’s young people have it easy. We all know of someone who will all too easily claim that it’s not like it was in their day.

But let’s be honest. The pressures young people face today were unimaginable to my generation.

Pressures to conform and pressures to perform.

They grow up in a world that places huge value on style and arguably not always as much value on substance.

The democratisation of communications has opened that world up, but brought its own pressures too.

In research conducted at the start of this year, more than a third of 11-16 year olds said they felt pressure to update their social media profiles with pictures or postings that make them look good. And girls feel this pressure in particular. Almost half of the girls surveyed said they felt this concern – but it’s an increasing problem for young boys too.

The same research showed that similar numbers feel worried about how many ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ they get on their postings and pictures.

And more worryingly, two in three 11-16 year olds said they had friends who had been bullied online.

That bullying can take many forms – but we’re seeing increasing incidents of abuse relating to sexting and so-called ‘revenge porn’.

The evidence base is still small, but in a survey conducted last year just eight police forces reported nearly 150 allegations relating to revenge porn over a two year period – and those are just the cases that make it that far.

NSPCC research shows that six in ten teenagers have been asked for sexual images or videos online. And many feel compelled to do it because of peer pressure or coercion.

Let’s be clear that the internet and the advance of the digital age are things to celebrate and embrace, but let us not deny that they bring new pressures that require new responses too.

Young people are also under pressure to perform in school. We demand a lot of them – and rightly so. We urge them to aspire and to succeed.

Some argue that this has gone too far – that the high-stakes culture of today’s schools puts them under too much pressure. But the reality of the modern world is that they must compete not just with their peers at home, but with those from other nations and jurisdictions too.

The jobs for which they will compete in the future will recognise few borders. The careers they will pursue will be increasingly international. Their capacity to fulfil their potential and succeed in life will rely on their ability to navigate an increasingly global world.

The global race may feel overwhelming, but it’s real. If we don’t prepare young people for it then we are selling them short.

And at the same time, the old certainties of life have fallen away as the world has changed. The social contract is in flux.

In his important book ‘The Pinch’, my former boss and now co-President David Willetts observed that “one of our deepest human instincts, somewhere between a desire and an obligation, is to transmit something worthwhile on to the next generation”.

But as he goes on to observe, without action there is a danger of this contract breaking down. The baby boomers have done very well out of life, but without a government that is on their side, young people could face a future of heavier taxes, harder work and less certainty as a result.

The average age of a first-time home-buyer is now 37 and the average deposit necessary to get on the property ladder is around £30,000. If you can rely on the bank of mum and dad then this can help a bit, but not everyone can. And arguably, no one should have to.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are turning this around – meeting every barrier to home ownership with a solution. But it’s clear that the ability to own a home of your own – once regarded almost as a birth right in this country – is no longer as easy as it was.

As a Party, we are showing that we understand these pressures; that we get what it is like to have to try and make your own way in modern Britain; that we have a plan to help young people navigate the many challenges in their way.

For me as Education Secretary, that begins with schools. It means demonstrating that we have a vision for what a good school looks like and the role a good school should play in helping to prepare young people for the realities of life.

That’s why I talk about preparing young people for life in modern Britain. It’s not just a soundbite, but a guiding principle. And it’s not just an add-on, but something that should run through everything a good school does.

The starting point is to help every young person master the basics so that they get the very best start in life. Some say this is backward looking. I say it’s the best way of preparing young people for the future.

The basics matter. They are the foundations from which everything else can grow. They are the point at which opportunity begins.

I don’t really want to make political points, but I will say that I think this represents a genuine difference of philosophy between us and Labour.

The Labour Party will always instinctively believe that there are some young people for whom mastery of an academic core is a step too far. They believe in equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. And by that they don’t mean the best possible outcomes. They just mean the same. They mean uniformity. Levelling down. A lack of ambition. They can’t help it. It’s in their DNA. They would rather the less able learned less, as long as the more able learned less as well.

That philosophy held sway for too long. It meant that when we came to office in 2010, every third child was leaving primary school unable to read, write and add up properly.

We have begun to turn that around.

But I have to tell you that the Liberal Democrats are barely much better.

Obsessed with drawing false dividing lines between closing the gap and raising the bar. Fearing the fact that some children learn faster than others. Spending all their time focusing on the gap between children rather than improving overall outcomes for all.

It means that we – uniquely – are the Party that unashamedly says every child regardless of background can, should and must be given the opportunity to achieve their very best.

We think that a core academic education is the birth right of every child. But that is the least pupils and parents should expect.

It’s noticeable that in all the conversations I have with parents – and I have to tell you a lot of the research we do in this area too – this is taken as read. People expect schools to help their children master the basics, and by and large they think they do a good job of delivering it too.

What concerns them is what comes next. And this is the other side of the coin. Because preparing young people for life in modern Britain is not just about ensuring they are knowledgeable, but making sure they develop the skills and values they need to succeed in modern Britain.

It’s often at this point that some Conservatives can develop a bit of a blind spot. We love to talk about knowledge – it plays to our Conservative instincts – but we get nervous when thinking of schools as places that instil skills and values too. We worry that this usurps the role of parents. That it means schools overstepping the mark. That it detracts from the core purpose of a school, which is to turn out academically bright young people.

And some even think ‘values’ is another of those words like ‘modern’ – something about which they are inherently suspicious. They think it’s political correctness or an attempt to impose teachings and ideas with which they disagree. But who truly can object to our schools being required to promote the very values that everyone in this room holds dear? Democracy. The rule of law. Individual liberty. Tolerance of and respect for those with different faiths and beliefs.

Schools are absolutely the right places for these things to be taught, promoted and embraced. No matter how many times I am asked, I am simply not going to apologise to anyone for that.

I am clear that schools have a critical role to play in turning out rounded, resilient young people that can face the challenges of the modern world with confidence.

A strong academic core is the start, but it’s just that: a start. It’s not enough. We need to address the whole child.

We send our children to school to learn, yes, but also to grow as people.

To mature and gain confidence.

To learn valuable life lessons, in the classroom and on the playground.

To make friends, meet people from all walks of life, and practice, in a safe environment, at the kind of social situations essential for success in adult life.

That’s one reason that I have placed such an emphasis on character education – because I want young people to develop the character, determination, resilience and grit that will help them thrive in the modern world.

It annoys me when I hear people being having a go at this, as they do. There’s a snobbish quality to the criticism – a poverty of thought and aspiration by those who say these traits can’t be taught or encouraged by schools.

I believe they can – and not only that, that they are essential too. That’s why we have invested £5 million in identifying and celebrating the best examples of character education at work. And why yesterday I was pleased to be able to announce that some of the successful free schools applications – like those from the Floreat Education group for example – have the development of good character at the very core of their approach.

And it’s this focus on the whole child that leads me to believe that Personal, Social, Health, and Economic Education – or PSHE – is an important part of a school’s offer too.

At this point I can almost hear the screams from some quarters, the printing presses starting up with their negative stories, the howls of derision from elsewhere. You only have to look at some of the headlines this weekend, when we suggested – god forbid – we ought to teach young people about the concept of consent.

But that highlights the very problem with this whole discussion – that any mention of PSHE immediately gets people thinking about sex. And that sparks strong and impassioned debates about what is and isn’t age appropriate; what is and isn’t right.

To be frank, sex education is an important element of the programme. But it’s just one part of it. In fact, proper PSHE should be much broader and should offer young people what I like to think of as a ‘curriculum for life’.

A good PSHE education should cover all of the skills and knowledge young people need to manage their lives, stay safe, make the right decisions, and thrive as individuals and members of modern society.

It helps them build the essential skills for the world of work. Leadership, communication, sympathy, perseverance.

Often called ‘soft skills’, they are actually the kind of qualities that business leaders are crying out for.

And it helps young people develop other skills that will make adult life that little bit easier – things like financial literacy or even more importantly the ability to use the internet as a force for good, offering them unprecedented opportunities, opening up new career paths and transforming them into digital citizens.

PSHE provides a really important space on the curriculum for these kind of skills to be explored and developed. Because the evidence is clear. These characteristics aren’t just innate; they can and should be taught.

It also plays a vital role in educating pupils about mental health, a personal priority of mine, – promoting positive mental health, addressing some of the damaging stigmas around it, and helping pupils learn where to go if they have any worries or concerns.

This is vital. At least 1 in 4 of the population experiences mental health problems at some point in their life. And over half of adults who suffer with mental health problems say that their problems started by age 14; three-quarters by their mid-twenties.

So there’s a huge personal, financial, and societal cost to poor mental health. It is our duty to intervene where we can, to stop this cost and help young people become resilient individuals instead.

But good PSHE teaching is also essential to keeping pupils safe, inside and outside the school gates.

We have all been horrified and appalled by stories about child sexual abuse over recent years. And as I said earlier, there are continuing concerns amongst parents, and children and young people themselves, about the easy availability and sharing of sexual images and pornography by school pupils.

By educating pupils about healthy relationships and consent, we can help them make sense of situations that can often be confusing and distressing for young minds to comprehend, and teach them how to keep themselves and others safe.

There is no trade-off between learning about these things and academic success – they are two sides of the same coin.

In fact, I think you would be hard-pushed to find anyone willing to disagree with the statement that healthy, happy, confident pupils are better-placed to learn.

I want more schools to put high-quality PSHE at the heart of their curriculum. It is an essential part of their responsibility to prepare young people for life in modern Britain.

And some schools already do it brilliantly well.

Last month I visited Eastbourne Academy to see their work as part of Stonewall’s School Champion programme. I was lucky enough to see them perform a play about tackling homophobic bullying and then sensitively discuss the issues raised with their peers.

Pupils at Eastbourne told me how “Sphere” – their name for PSHE – had challenged their stereotypes and misperceptions about people who were different to them and helped them to better understand their communities. Perhaps most importantly they told me that the reason they valued these classes so much was that this was the time when they felt they could “develop as people”.

I would encourage all schools to consider following in Eastbourne’s footsteps, and put PSHE education at the heart of their curriculum, giving it the same focus as they would any other subject.

But what I won’t do is force them to do it in a set prescribed way, decided by me in Westminster.

Too often, when we’re not talking about sex, we instead end up in the circular debate about whether PSHE should be a statutory part of the curriculum or not.

I’ll let you into a secret here: we keep a list at the DfE of every topic, subject and idea that someone wants us to make statutory. It currently runs to several pages, and if we implemented every plea then young people would still be in school at midnight.

I do think PSHE has a better claim than some, but I am not convinced that simply making it statutory is the answer to the question at hand.

I choose to take a different path. I trust schools to do what’s right for them and their pupils. I let teachers decide. I believe schools and teachers are best placed to design their own PSHE curriculum to meet the specific needs of their pupils and communities. And I think it’s important that that curriculum should be able to flex and adapt according to changing social factors too.

“Sphere” might be the right approach for the pupils in Eastbourne, but it won’t be the right approach for pupils everywhere. Let’s let a thousand flowers bloom.

The role of government is not to mandate but to help. And at the moment one of the biggest questions we face is how to improve the quality of PSHE teaching.

Ofsted evidence shows that PSHE teaching is not yet good enough in many schools – we’re letting down thousands of children.

And linked to that – only 28% of primary schools and 45% of secondary schools have one or more staff members holding the national PSHE qualification.

I know that the vast majority of schools and teachers recognise the importance of decent PSHE, and want to teach it well.

That’s why this weekend I announced a range of measures to improve the quality and provision of PSHE education in our schools.

We will establish a new charter mark for schools in conjunction with the PSHE Association. This will be awarded to schools that demonstrate excellence in this area in order to give schools something to strive for in improving their PSHE teaching, and making it easier for schools struggling in this area to work with the best.

We know that one of the biggest barriers that teachers face is knowing which materials to use to teach PSHE. I can see why, the array of materials out there is truly bewildering. Some of them are clearly inappropriate, offensive, or at odds with British Values.

That’s why we want to work with the PSHE association to help them quality assess resources produced by other organisations and ensure that these are the ones that teachers use in our schools.

And later this week we will launch new guidance, produced by the association on one of the most important and sensitive areas of PSHE teaching: consent.

The new guidance will build on an existing programme of work between the Department and the PSHE Association, and will give teachers important information about the law on consent, helping them to design effective lessons accordingly.

And in this modern world, when young women – and for that matter young men – are exposed to so many pressures day in day out, surely we have a duty to make sure they know that they can say no, and to know how to do it.

That doesn’t mean “lessons in rape” as some more hysterical headline writers have suggested, but it does mean telling young people the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship: about when something crosses the line and what they can do about it.

Because if the revelations of recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the stakes are too high to let our young people leave school without this knowledge. I don’t pretend for one minute that lessons on consent would have been enough to stop the horrific abuse in Rotherham or Oxford, but I will not rest until I know that we have done everything we can to arm young women, and in particular the most vulnerable young women, with the information they need to spot, report and tackle abuse.

And this really is the test – the test of whether we face up to the modern world, or shrink from it. Embrace and respond to the challenges of modern Britain, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t here. I know where I stand and where we should stand as a Party too.

For we simply cannot stop the advance of the modern world. We cannot – as some would have us do – stop the world and jump off. And we cannot wish away the challenges this world presents.

Some say we should stop putting so much pressure on our young people, but the pressure is there. The question is how we help them respond.

Some say we should wrap them in cotton wool and not expose them to the realities of the world, but in the internet age that is increasingly hard to do. The question is how we provide them with the emotional resilience to cope.

Some say that things like character, personal and social skills, and emotional intelligence are innate and can’t be taught. I simply disagree. You need only go to some of our finest schools operating in some of our most difficult communities today to expose this as a lie.

I have a vision of what a good education looks like. It is broad, not narrow. Rooted in – and responsive to – the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. About the future, not the past.

That is what our plan for education has been about – and what it will continue to be about for as long as I am here, because that plan is working.

It is about providing young people – of whatever background – with the knowledge yes, but also the skills and the values they need to succeed in this modern Britain.

A Britain with many challenges for sure, but many opportunities as well.

Where the rewards may be great, but the pressures are great too.

A Britain that demands new things of us – new understanding, new ideas and new responses like those being developed by Bright Blue today.

It is my pleasure to be part of this organisation and to be able to play my part in shaping that response.

Because if we get it right, the rewards for our Party will be great. And the opportunity to change Britain for the better will be ours.

The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP is the Secretary of State for Education