Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange.
Andy Burnham made first major policy speech yesterday. While it told us a bit about the sort of issues he cares about, it doesn’t tell us much about Labour’s position on many of the most important issues in education.
Amazingly, he failed to reference academies or free schools once during his half an hour talk. There’s a good reason for this curious omission. Though it is probably the central issue in the schools debate at present, Labour seems deeply uncertain about whether it supports or opposes the free schools policy.
In 2000, Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis launched an academies programme that provided Labour with the opportunity to lead the way in school reform. Those reforms slowed in 2007 when Ed Balls and Gordon Brown, supported by the trade unions, decided to pull back from the programme. Nevertheless, 200 odd academies had opened by the time the Coalition won the election last May.
Ed Miliband lost an opportunity to set the agenda on schooling by not moving quickly to build on Labour’s academies programme. Initially, the new government focused on allowing good schools to convert to academy status. Blairites would have liked to have outflanked the Government by proposing a policy more heavily based on replacing underperforming schools. But this would have been controversial. So instead the party said nothing.
Now it is too late: Michael Gove has moved to rebalance his policy by focusing more on driving up standards at the bottom end: closing the worst 200 primary schools. This takes the policy back more towards the original Blair/Adonis vision. Labour could have got ahead of the government here. But instead they missed the boat.
Andy Burnham has got himself into something of a tangle when it comes to free schools. He has said that “I don't support publicly-funded schools employing unqualified teachers and opting out of the National Curriculum.” But at the same time he says he supports Peter Hyman – formerly a speech writer to Tony Blair, now a secondary school teacher – who has set up his own free school with support and advice from Andrew Adonis. In a cruel twist, even Burnham’s football team, Everton, has announced that it is exploring the opportunity of opening up its own free school.
So other than those set up by Labour advisors, which Free Schools does Andy Burnham support? On Twitter Burnham has said that “I feel [the] Free School policy will be damaging overall, as Sweden found. But [there’s] nothing to stop some embodying comprehensive ideal”. Asked how many of the current Free School proposals embody this ideal, he argues that it is “Hard to say. There's way too much secrecy about Free Schools.”
He needs to resolve his view on this central issue quickly. As Nick Clegg found in the case of tuition fees, and David Cameron did on his inheritance tax promise, it is dangerous to leave unresolved policy questions hanging in the air: half dead and half alive. Some political event which focused attention onto schools could leave Burnham suddenly having to make policy on the hoof. One way or another, he should resolve the tangle, before he is forced to do so under pressure.
Can he steal a march on Gove elsewhere? I thought the most interesting point in the speech was a criticism of Labour’s previous A-C targets for GCSE.
“Our National Challenge benchmark of 5 A*-C at GCSE was the right measure for the time… [but] it did not provide sufficient incentive to stretch the brightest, to turn Cs in Bs, Bs into As, and As into A*s… In Government we were beginning to move away from 5A*-Cs as a headline measure, because we knew that any ‘threshold’ standard like this would focus attention at the borderline and not incentivise schools to focus on every child.”
This is a very good point. Teaching to the D/C boundary has distorted teachers priorities, and led to the neglect of bright kids in state schools. Burnham suggested that some kind of value-added measure would make for a better central target. Quite possibly: but such measures already exist, and Gove is already flirting with giving them a more central role in evaluating performance. Burnham is going to have to go further, faster on this if he is going to get ahead of the government and carve out a distinctive position here.
Burnham also sought to open up another front by accusing the government of undervaluing vocational qualifications. He called for a vocational equivalent of the UCAS clearing house system for universities. That sounds quite interesting, although it is unclear how it would work. But he had little else distinctive to say about this issue, so again, it didn’t make much impact.
He also suggested some kind of minimum tuition entitlement for kids that fall behind at school – an idea first floated at the fag end of Gordon Brown’s time as PM. While it is an interesting idea, without any money, it is difficult to see how this is going to be made into a meaningful policy.
In the darkest days of their opposition, the Conservatives simply stopped talking about a whole series of issues to do with the reform of public services, because they knew that they were either badly split on the issue, or what they secretly wanted to say was unpopular. This was a mistake, and the party failed to make any significant progress until it was prepared to confront its own internal disagreements.
Burnham is clearly no fool. But he risks falling into the exactly the same trap. Ironically, this week would have been the perfect time to clear up where Labour stands. Because it’s much better to resolve your internal arguments while no-one is watching, than to try and do it later in the full glare of the TV cameras.