Burnham to cast shadow over new breed of academies

15th October 2010 at 01:00
In his first interview as shadow education secretary, Andy Burnham tells The TES of his commitment to comprehensives

If there were any doubts that the Labour Party was in opposition, one look at their MPs' new offices should soon put them out of mind.

Andy Burnham's inner sanctum adjacent to Portcullis House must be a far cry from what he was used to as health secretary. The newly appointed shadow education secretary now resides in a shabby ground-floor study with depressing green sofas, surrounded by piles of boxes suggesting he is still coming to terms with his new place in politics.

It is testament to Mr Burnham's character that he is willing to give an interview after just three days in the job, despite not having moved into his office properly. Although it might seem less daunting than his first day in the job when he was obliged to go head to head with his opposite number Michael Gove in the Commons for Education Questions.

Both in the chamber and back here in his office, Mr Burnham insists the Education Secretary is running his department as a journalist, not as a minister, with a "loose attention to the facts".

"He is embarking on an ideological experiment with the state school system, without any real evidence that it will work, or what effect it will have on all children's opportunities," he says.

His comments have a familiar ring. Mr Burnham's predecessor, Ed Balls, often labelled the Conservatives' free schools and new academies a "dangerous experiment" that would break up state education.

The two Labour politicians are similar in that they stand slightly to the left of the centre-ground, and both rarely shy away from a fight, but they differ in a crucial and, possibly for Mr Burnham, an advantageous way.

Unlike Mr Balls, the new education shadow was comprehensively educated and in Merseyside to boot, making him the perfect Labour antithesis to the privately educated Mr Gove.

Indeed, despite humble beginnings at St Aelred's Roman Catholic High School in Newton-le-Willows, St Helens, Mr Burnham went on to study English Literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

"I am somebody who believes fundamentally in comprehensive education," he says. "I want to restate and update Labour's belief in the comprehensive ideal and I believe that in doing that I can articulate a very clear alternative to what the Government is now hellbent, it seems, in doing that may be good for some but bad for many."

The 40-year-old MP for Leigh is clearly passionate about his comprehensive vision, and it is one that may not have won him many allies under Tony Blair's reign, or for that matter under David Miliband had he won the leadership battle and not his left-leaning brother, nicknamed "Red Ed".

But the socialism Mr Burnham stems from is one that differs from that learnt at the top Scottish boarding school Fettes College, where Blair was schooled, or even north London's Haverstock School attended by the Miliband brothers and the so-called "Primrose Hill Gang".

Mr Burnham joined the Labour Party in 1984, aged just 14, in response to the miners' strikes that were taking place on his doorstep, and the Labour ideals that drew him to the party 26 years ago are still fundamental to him.

During his campaign for the Labour leadership, Mr Burnham called for the party to return to its "traditional roots", describing himself as the one without "well-connected parents".

"I said some pretty uncompromising things in the leadership campaign in terms of education in that I really want to restate Labour's belief in the comprehensive ideal," he says. "That is important because it's about the aspirations of the many.

"I said a lot about how life chances are incredibly uneven in this country, and Labour, for me, is nothing if it's not about challenging and breaking that down.

"I will never forget the experience of going from a Merseyside comprehensive to Cambridge. That, actually, more than anything, has forged the politician I am today because it was so disorientating. It took such a long time to connect the world I was from and the world I was in."

Despite this, however, during Mr Burnham's and his Labour colleagues' 13- year reign, the gap between the rich and poor actually widened; social mobility - as illustrated by Alan Milburn's report - deteriorated.

Mr Gove has used this fact to push his expansion of the academies programme and creation of free schools, claiming that the state system as it stands is broken and is need of fundamental reform. It is an approach that Mr Burnham believes will create an "elitist" education system.

"In the worst-case scenario, if this Government has two terms, the question may well be: `Is there such a thing as a state system of education?' As far as I can tell we're potentially heading towards a segregated system," he says.

"The academies that Michael Gove is bringing forward are the polar extreme of those brought in under the Labour Government. They are outstanding schools and they are being completely walled-off from the rest of the system. They are almost a fiefdom of the high performing schools.

"We could end up with a very competitive and unstable system, a very fragile system."

The new education shadow says this approach to school reform coupled with the messy handling of the Building Schools for the Future affair has led to his counterpart looking weaker since coming to power. He says right now was a time for more stability in public services, not more change.

"In a period of reduced resources people should focus on improving standards," he says. "Trying to lure people into organisational change - and that is what Michael Gove is trying to do - will only distract them from the overriding job of raising standards. The golden boy of the opposition benches has lost his sure touch, he has thrown away so much good and I think he will pay a price for it."

Mr Burnham will be hoping that when he does pay that price, it will be his ticket back to those more comfortable office spaces that power provides.

Andy Burnham's CV

1970: Born in Aintree, Liverpool

1981: Attended St Aelred RC High School, Newton-le-Willows

1988: Studied English Lit at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

2001: MP for Leigh

2006: Health minister

2007: Chief secretary to the Treasury

2008: Culture secretary

2009: Health secretary

2010: Shadow secretary of state for health

2010: Shadow secretary of state for education.

Original headline: Burnham pledges to cast shadow over the new breed of academies

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