Andy Burnham's hustings foray into Ed Balls's territory of education may have surprised some, but his defence of the comprehensive ideal and practice comes at a time where education faces an onslaught from the coalition

Education, education, education

Towards the end of this week’s Progress Labour leadership hustings, Andy Burnham made a comment that has the potential to open a new chapter in Labour’s public service reform debate. In response to a fairly anodyne question about what the candidates would do to further tackle inequality, Burnham declared his passion for comprehensive education and opposition to selective education.

Ed Balls, who had just invoked the memory of Peter Mandelson by saying Labour should not be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, suddenly turned in shock at Burnham’s incursion into the shadow education secretary’s territory. All parents, argued Burnham, should be able to have a vote on whether grammar schools should stay or go and it should be easier to initiate such a ballot.

Now everyone in the Labour party opposes the 11+ and no one wants any more grammar schools but to imply that Balls did not do enough to support their abolition is a significant statement that Burnham has yet to elaborate on. Successive education secretaries have felt that the uneasy status quo on grammar schools was too politically toxic to get embroiled in with.

Thus far, public service reform, especially in health and education, has been the ‘no-go area’ of Labour’s leadership contest. Because Burnham and Balls still hold the shadow portfolios, any comments made by one of the other candidates about reform of the NHS or schools will be viewed by the media as direct attacks on the record of the former secretaries of state.

Amongst Labour members, the new doctors and nurses, new hospital wards, community polyclinics, abolition of waiting lists and the all round revitalisation of the NHS is one of the strongest parts of the Blair/Brown government’s record. But if Diane Abbott gets asked, she will no doubt defend her rebellions on Blair’s foundation hospitals and Brown’s PFI.

Ed Balls has said that Labour went down the wrong road during the second term by trying to get definition for the public service reform agenda by picking fights with public servants and their unions. Andy Burnham says a National Care Service could do in this century what the National Health Service did in the last.

But so far, none of the leadership candidates have articulated any sense of what a new public service reform agenda might look like. The Progress hustings was briefly sparked by two hecklers, who interjected on a question from the audience about what Labour’s three biggest failures in government had been. One person shouted “Academies!” only for one of Diane Abbott’s supporters to shout back in support of the academies in Hackney.

Anyone who has visited Mossbourne academy in Hackney, can’t fail to be impressed. But the academies agenda under Michael Gove could not be further away from what Andrew Adonis envisaged during Labour’s second term.

Back then, academy sponsors had to invest £2 million of capital to show their long term commitment, to ensure they have the business acumen and can-do attitude that Blair felt needed to be injected into schools stuck in Ofsted’s ‘failing’ category. Academies were originally about fresh starts for children who had been failed by the system. The new buildings were important elements in that fresh start. As were the freedoms and flexibilities that head teachers were given to make the curriculum relevant for disengaged and often persistently truant pupils.

When David Miliband left the DfES, there were just a handful of academies. In the manifesto he coordinated for the 2005 election, Labour set a target for 200, all of them secondary schools. When Gordon Brown renamed the department and entrusted it to Ed Balls, that target was doubled to 400 and Balls removed the requirement for sponsors pay the £2 million entry fee, saying that he wanted sponsors with education expertise not private sector know-how.

One of Michael Gove’s first acts was to write to every school in the country – that includes tens of thousands of highly successful schools – and offer them academy status. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that many of the schools Gove wants to turn into academies are taking 40 per cent fewer poor pupils than the national average. David Blunkett has explained the practical flaws in Gove’s ideological plan but the academies model is now hardly recognisable from its original purpose.

And that brings us back to school admissions. Because if large numbers of schools are encouraged to take up academy status, they will become their own admissions authorities and will not be part of the local authority admissions process. That will undermine the comprehensive principle that Andy Burnham says he is so passionate about because academies can select a proportion of pupils by aptitude and can set other admissions criteria that makes them effectively selective.

David Miliband continues to claim credit for creating the Building Schools for the Future programme when he was junior schools minister under Charles Clarke, despite the fact that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were advising the Chancellor on this multi-billion pound, decade long programme to rebuild or refurbish every single secondary school in the country. What David Miliband definitely does deserve the credit for is agreeing the social partnership agreement with every teaching and support staff union other than the NUT. It was a successful workforce reform that set new ground for industrial relations in the public sector. In his opening statement at the New Statesman hustings, David Miliband quoted Tony Crosland and said he is standing “to tackle inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity”. That is going to require a renewed public service reform agenda that he has yet to set out.

Ed Balls got the biggest cheer of the night on Monday when he criticised Labour MP Frank Field for questioning the value of breakfast clubs as his first act after being appointed by David Cameron. Breakfast clubs, as well as extended schools and out of hours activities were a huge part of Labour’s school reform agenda but the left needs new reforms to argue in favour of, as well as opposing the reforms of the coalition government.

Photo: Masaru Gotu / World Bank 2008

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