UK Politics

Burnham's 'mission' for comprehensive education

Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham
Image caption Mr Burnham said there were many outstanding schools but this was not always got across

The principles behind comprehensive education need to be "rehabilitated", Andy Burnham has said.

While his faith in its purpose was "unshakeable", the values underpinning it must be "explained afresh", the new shadow education secretary said.

Labour's challenge was "to show how comprehensive can be aspirational", he told social services directors.

Coalition policy on new schools and tuition fees had an "elitist echo" and risked increasing inequality, he added.

He was speaking a day after the government announced plans to allow universities in England to charge annual fees of up to £9,000.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended the plans in a speech on Thursday, saying the existing system of student finance "promotes neither fairness for students, nor financial sustainability for universities" and the poorest graduates would pay less under the new arrangements.

'Lost generation'

But Mr Burnham, who became shadow education secretary last month, said he detected a "rising echo of elitism" in the government's approach across a variety of different fronts.

Aside from tuition fees, he said funding for Sure Start was being cut in real terms, education maintenance allowance was being abolished and new "free schools" in the state sector could damage existing institutions and risk "more social segregation".

"My worry is that the combined effect is to depress aspiration," he told the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.

"I can see history repeating itself and the risk of creating a lost generation. The elitist echo was smothered in opposition but in power it is rising."

On schooling, he said British society was more unequal than forty years ago and where a child was born, rather than their potential, more often than not still determined their life chances.

While a strong comprehensive education system was more important than ever, he said its principles needed "updating" to ensure that it best equipped people for the challenges they would face in life.

'Sense of achievement'

While giving every child the opportunity to maximise their opportunities, celebrating success and excellence was important.

"The notion of comprehensive education has been allowed to fall into disrepair," he said. "Well, my mission in this job is to rehabilitate it. Its values are good and I want to explain them afresh.

"It is about having a plan for everyone rather than just a few. But I also want to rethink it for new times - so that it speaks to a sense of achievement, quality and excellence as well as one of togetherness and fairness.

"That is our big challenge - to show how comprehensive can be aspirational."

Mr Burnham said he would set out his thinking on the direction of Labour's schools policy, including early years education, in early 2011 after speaking to parents, teachers, social workers and youth workers.

Under Tony Blair, Labour focused on extending choice in the maintained sector through the introduction of academy schools in areas of particular need.

Free schools

But despite a big increase in resources, the Conservatives say standards in certain state schools are unsatisfactory and parents in some areas are being shortchanged.

Its plan for 16 "free schools" - directly funded by government and outside local authority control - next year is designed to provide more choice for families and to get parents, charities and other groups more involved in their running.

The coalition has pledged to give schools in England a real terms rise in funding over the next four years and spend £2.5bn on a "pupil premium" for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

But critics have questioned whether this is possible without some schools losing out financially.

More on this story