It's time to step up a gear, Mr Burnham

23rd September 2011 at 01:00

Andy Burnham has a tough job. The shadow education secretary must balance Labour's legacy with new ideas to win tomorrow's voters. His task is harder because education secretary Michael Gove cleverly wraps his policies in a Blairite mantle.

Mr Burnham's first TES interview last year seemed too nostalgic, viewing Conservative policies through the prism of John Major, attacking academy expansion and free schools, and fretting about selection. Yet Mr Gove's opposition to new grammar schools and his embrace of key Labour policies such as academies, minimum floor targets and headteacher-led school improvement demanded a more nuanced response.

Mr Burnham has recognised this more recently. Imaginative free-school proposals for the inner cities, such as that by former Blair adviser Peter Hyman, have led to an acceptance that not all such schools are a bad idea. Instead, he has focused his attack on the threat to vocational education posed by the English Baccalaureate and on forcing significant partial U-turns over post-EMA funding and school sport partnerships.

Yet, this will not provide Labour with the positive platform it needs to persuade parents and teachers that the party is for them. And the danger of waiting for the party's internal policy review is that it takes comfort in past successes - and shibboleths - rather than thinking afresh for the future.

At Labour's Liverpool conference later this month, Mr Burnham must shape the terms of Labour's schools debate. He needs to be both credible and surprising. So, he should outflank Mr Gove on academies and free schools. By 2015, most secondary and many primary schools will be academies. Mr Burnham should promise that schools which want academy powers would have them, but government time and resources would be focused on the poorest performers.

Former Labour minister Lord Adonis has argued for a big increase in private-school and university sponsors of academies, with a strong expansion of the sponsor-led academies programme. Mr Burnham should make this case, too, while also encouraging many more academy trusts led by successful schools. Equally, he should pledge to focus free schools on disadvantaged areas or on offering alternative types of school - religious or curriculum - where there is a genuine demand. The focus on numbers rather than outcomes means the programme currently lacks clear purpose. Mr Burnham should pledge more free schools with purpose.

No shadow education secretary can be without a strong policy to tackle indiscipline, especially after the summer riots. There is no mileage in a bidding war on legislation, as the thinness of government measures shows. Mr Burnham should make studio schools - small schools that make it easier to teach those disengaged from mainstream education - a key part of his behaviour strategy and pledge to back groups of schools, as well as the voluntary organisations that establish them. And he should promise to use the Government's free-school powers to open them.

The shadow education secretary is right to champion vocational qualifications. Government advisers are split: Alison Wolf opposes most pre-16 vocational education while Lord Baker champions his 14-19 university technical colleges (UTCs). Mr Burnham should repeat his call for a technical baccalaureate, with vocational qualifications valued by employers, and linked to the real world of work. And he should argue strongly that for a significant minority of 14 to 16-year-olds, a good vocational education is crucial. He should back Lord Baker on his UTC ambitions over Ms Wolf. But he should not make support for the vocational seem like a critique of the academic, so he needs also to promise to back strong school subject networks to encourage greater take-up of key academic subjects.

Constant changing

Not all ideas need to be wholly new. A Labour weakness in power was its constant changing of initiatives. So, Mr Burnham should revive school achievement awards, which Charles Clarke abolished. They were a more popular - and less expensive - way of rewarding success in teaching than performance-related pay. Improving and successful schools received one-off payments that heads could share among staff teams to reflect their success that year. The scheme was spread too thin. But a sharper version, focusing rewards on schools that achieve the strongest sustainable improvements - and those that help them do so - should be introduced.

This should be accompanied by a pupil premium partly related to results. If the premium is about narrowing achievement gaps, it should be linked to successful reductions in those gaps. And if, after three years, a school is not narrowing those gaps, a proportion of the annual premium should be withheld until progress is made. At present, it is assumed that a report to parents and a column in the league tables will be enough. It won't. The premium needs a hard edge, and Mr Burnham should promise to give it that muscle. Both these measures would provide real incentives for improvement - and show that Labour was truly about rewarding success and lifting standards for the poorest.

Crucially, Mr Burnham should resist turning the clock back on local authority powers. Latterly, Labour became too obsessed with council-imposed partnerships. Instead, Mr Burnham should promote and incentivise collaboration between academies and other schools, recognising that new school-led networks and academy chains can often deliver more effectively than councils.

Opposition education policies must be practical and defining, building on what's in place and reflecting the values of the party concerned. Mr Burnham should use his opportunity in Liverpool to meet those challenges.

Conor Ryan was senior education adviser to David Blunkett and Tony Blair.

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