Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, warned yesterday that Labour faced losing the next election if it failed to improve standards in schools.
In his first keynote speech since taking up the post in this month's cabinet reshuffle, he set himself the goal of showing that state schools could outperform the independent sector in terms of exam results and overall performance. But he warned that this could only be achieved by a programme of "continuous reform".
Mr Johnson was speaking in the wake of Wednesday night's Commons rebellion by 46 Labour MPs which failed to stop legislation paving the way for Tony Blair's new network of independently run "trust" schools to be set up around the country.
He told a Fabian Society seminar in London that the vote "was not the last vote on reform", adding that "reform is for life, not just the first two terms" of Labour in government.
"We must push ahead with a refreshed and revitalised radicalism in our schools policy," he said. "If we don't we will lose the centre-left consensus that has joined our movement together for over a hundred years. We'll lose the momentum and may well lose office."
He said critics of "trust" schools - who claimed they would create a two-tier system of education since they had control over pupil admissions - of "being guilty of a bizarre kind of reverse elitism amongst the chattering classes which tolerates failing comprehensives whilst denigrating any suggestion of diversity away from the traditional local authority model" of schools. "We need to fight these ideological demons," he added.
He said it was "rubbish" to suggest they would cream off the brightest pupils. "The truth is they will work under exactly the same code of fair admissions as other schools with academic selection ruled out," he added. Instead, the "trust" schools would give heads greater freedom to innovate and improve standards.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that some youngsters still got a "raw deal" from their schooling.
In days gone by it was only a very small minority that received a good education. Now only a very small minority did not "which is arguably an even harsher condition".
"Because it is those groups who are already liable to social exclusion that the education system fails. We make a bad system worse - running the risk of wider community unrest, greater racial tension and deeper social exclusion," he said.
He said the aim that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, set out in his Budget speech in March - of bringing spending levels on state schools up to those in the independent sector would create "a great launch-pad" to improve standards. "We need to demonstrate that the public sector can outperform the private sector," Mr Johnson said.
One of his key priorities would be a drive to improve the education of children in care - who were up to 25 times more likely to end up in prison or some form of custody as adults.
He said that a Green Paper would be produced this summer outlining ways of improving their performance at school. "We must not write off some children as unfit for the world of education," he added.
Tough action also needed to be taken against failing schools with privately-sponsored academies offering "a clear and viable way out for failing schools".
Teachers' leaders last night welcomed his speech as showing a clear sign he intended to improve the lot of the least well-off pupils.
But Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, cautioned: "The clear commitment to constant reform and renewal needs, however, to be tempered with a recognition that schools need time to embed and consolidate change if it is to be effective and sustainable."Reuse content