Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham drew a line in the sand this week, throwing his weight behind an alternative to the English Baccalaureate that would "give every child a path in life".
Speaking at the Labour party conference in Liverpool, Mr Burnham surprised many observers by backing a "grass-roots rejection" of the EBac and calling his "modern baccalaureate" a "unified programme of study for all children", not just the few.
The modern baccalaureate is the brainchild of Andrew Chubb, head of Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull, where just 1 per cent of pupils gained the EBac last year.
Mr Chubb, who shared the stage with Mr Burnham on Wednesday, said he did not want to appear confrontational towards the Coalition's new performance measure, but felt the EBac - which demands pupils achieve five GCSEs in traditional subjects - would "switch off" too many young people who are not interested in studying academic subjects.
"With the modern baccalaureate I am really trying to encapsulate the spirit of truly comprehensive education, providing one framework for every child on every pathway," Mr Chubb told TES before his conference speech.
"I cannot stress how passionate I am for raising the standards for all students, not just those who want to study academic subjects.
"At our school we say it is not an option for our students to become Neets (those not in education, employment or training), but that is what they would become if they were forced down the route of the EBac, as they just wouldn't see how it was relevant to them."
Some 15 schools are trying the modern baccalaureate, which has been developed by anti-EBac campaigners and would allow pupils to take "vocational" Btec and OCR National qualifications alongside GCSEs, include ICT as a core subject, and enable them to focus on areas such as business or the arts. It would allow students more choice, but leave the option open for them to achieve an EBac if they want to.
Mr Burnham and his policy review panel have endorsed the alternative performance measure, saying it is ambitious on the basics, such as English and maths, but also gives young people the "qualities they need to succeed in the 21st century".
Speaking to TES ahead of his speech, Mr Burnham said he was now firmly opposed to the Government's EBac. "The modern baccalaureate enables young people to find their path, so they can add to the basics something that appeals to their passions and their talents.
"My response to the EBac is not to come up with a list of my own and to say to Michael Gove, `Mine is better than yours'. It is to say Labour trusts the professionals, to listen and to go with the grass-roots rejection. It is interesting that headteachers are voting with their feet and saying, `We are not going to do what you want us to do'."
Mr Burnham also had more in his bag of tricks. He announced that he was developing plans for a "Ucas-style clearing system" for apprenticeships that would enable school leavers to apply to employers in the same way that others apply to university.
The shadow education secretary, who has been accused of being somewhat lacking in policy initiatives, said he hoped the modern baccalaureate would appeal to the 50 per cent of young people who do not go on to higher education.
"The debate focuses predominantly on the university route and it leaves lots of other young people adrift and without any clear way forward," Mr Burnham said. "Britain has a serious problem with the prestige and the profile of vocational, work-based qualifications and the future demands that we have a much better focus on that."
But with schools busy rearranging their curriculums to meet the demands of the EBac, it looks extremely unlikely that the majority will be able to spend much time on the pesky question of vocational qualifications for a long while.
Andy Burnham also called for teachers to be "revalidated" every five years to ensure they are still meeting the necessary standards. The policy would be linked to teachers' continuing professional development (CPD), but would be open to headteachers to be used as an accountability measure.
Mr Burnham said it was not a punitive approach, but an enabling approach. "It is saying resource should be invested in CPD and not all of it into initial teacher training," he said. "We shouldn't just say you get your PGCE and that's it. We need our teachers to keep up to date with the latest thinking as education is constantly changing."
Original print headline: Mr Burnham seeks clear blue water with his type of Bac