Andy Burnham: 'Comprehensive schools are part of Labour's DNA'

As he launches his party's new education policy, Andy Burnham tells Richard Garner why he's committed to providing the best for the 50 per cent who won't go on to higher education – and why we should expect more U-turns from the Government
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Andy Burnham contemplates the Government plan to exempt its flagship "free" schools and academies from having to hire trained teachers to fill posts. "Call me old-fashioned," he says, "but I believe pupils in a state-funded school are entitled to have a trained teacher in their class."

It does seem an odd way of selling the policy, which is aimed at raising standards, he muses. Open one of these and you can employ any old Tom, Dick or Harry to teach the pupils.

The same epithet of old-fashioned – in terms of Labour values – could be used by some to describe another key strand to his thinking: an unashamed commitment to comprehensive education.

"Well, for me, the values of the comprehensive system are as intrinsic to the Labour party DNA as the values of the NHS," he says.

He concedes that, in the past in government, Labour may not have made enough of the successes being achieved by the comprehensive system. His words will undoubtedly find an echo in Labour party ranks and, beyond that, among teachers; so will the theme of the review of Labour party education policy, just being launched. It will concentrate on finding a comprehensive (in both meanings of the word) approach to aspiration and achievement for tomorrow's youngsters. "I'm really excited by it," he says. "I'm the first Labour education spokesman for 15 years – when David Blunkett was in opposition – to have the chance of refreshing Labour party policy."

He promises that the review will "look again" at the Tomlinson report as a means of tackling the divide between academic and vocational education. For those who have forgotten, the report by former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson recommended setting up an overarching diploma covering the two – at GCSE and A-level. It was jettisoned by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair – ostensibly because he was worried about pre-election Daily Mail headlines in 2005 accusing him of ditching A-levels – dubbed the "gold standard" of the examination system by traditionalists.

"My brothers are both in education," Burnham says, "and they said to me they felt that was a moment that Labour missed in government – something important was said in the Tomlinson report."

He is also thinking about reintroducing the literacy and numeracy hours – originally brought in under David Blunkett in primary schools – but at the latter end of compulsory education. "It would be a guarantee at 16 – every young person needs to be strong in both English and maths.

"I'm thinking you would bring that back at the end of education. You would have to have clarity about the minimum requirements for everybody. There should be one-to-one tuition. I know it's expensive but – if you're struggling – you get self-conscious about it and one-to-one tuition helps with learning."

He also wants to pave a clear pathway to the future – for youngsters pursuing a vocational route to education – as exists for those studying academic subjects. "For the academic route; for the 50 per cent going into higher education, it's clear – GCSE followed by A-levels then university," he said. "I want equal clarity on the vocational side – GCSEs, diplomas if they still exist, or BTecs and guaranteed apprenticeships. A-levels or apprenticeships should be guaranteed."

Local authorities, he argues, could be required to come up with a minimum number of apprenticeships per year. All this, though, is in the future. For the present he has to deal with what he sees as the overly-swift pace of reform initiated under Education Secretary Michael Gove's stewardship of schools. "I find the pace with which they're changing things to be bewildering," he said. "Because of this they're making mistakes – the Building Schools for the Future programme [where there were several mistakes in the announcement over which schools' projects were being axed], school sports [where the Government was forced into a partial U-turn over funding after an outcry from leading athletes in the run up to next year's Olympic games], BookStart and educational maintenance allowances [for youngsters from hard-pressed communities wanting to stay on at school or college]. I'm not yet clear whether this is down to incompetence or arrogance."

He is convinced that another U-turn is around the corner over the proposals for the English Baccalaureate. Under it, pupils who obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE including maths, English, science, a language and a humanities subject – provided it is history or geography – will qualify for a certificate. It was announced last summer and included as a measure in exam league tables last month, without any warning to headteachers. "Headteachers are becoming increasingly frustrated and exasperated by Michael Gove over it," he says. "It is highly unfair and was potentially damaging to their reputations in a highly competitive environment. Why Latin and not engineering and why ancient Hebrew and not ICT? I think he's going to have to give ground on the English Baccalaureate. He's not living in the real world. Why not business studies, too? And there is a huge call for religious education. In some parts of the country many children don't opt for a foreign language. Yet there is no recognition for any form of vocational studies."

The row over the Baccalaureate gets to the heart of the differences between the two men. Mr Burnham is clearly irked by his opposite number's reaction when he presses the cause of vocational education. "It gets me going," he says. "Even if you talk about vocational education, he talks about the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'. Michael Gove has got nothing to say to the 50 per cent not planning to go to university. He relentlessly talks about the low number of 'free school meals children' going to Oxbridge, as if that's the only option."

Another issue he has with the Coalition Government is over its flagship "free" schools policy. He is anxious to point out that he does not intend to close down all existing "free" schools if Labour comes to power, as has been suggested by opponents, such as the author and journalist Toby Young, who is behind a project to open a "free" secondary school in west London. "If a school was up and running successfully, it wouldn't make sense to close it," he says. "I'm not against people who are trying to set up their own schools. This has just got to be set against other people's needs. It makes no sense if you set up a 'free' school if you destabilise the six schools around it."

He believes Mr Gove has got hung up on "structures not standards" in his attempt to push through changes – a move that has exposed a major contradiction in his policies.

"On the one hand, he delivers highly prescriptive statements and policies which go way past what we ever did," he says. "Yet on the other he says teachers and heads should have the freedom to teach."

Labour came into power mouthing the opposite mantra "standards not structures", although Burnham concedes it spent too much time in its middle years on structures. That is something he will have to address in his policy review . He will also have to address it when he travels to watch his football team, Everton, at the weekend. There is no shortage of advice from his family – steeped in education as it is. "It's education talk on the way down," he says. "They give me a report card and then they give Michael Gove one. It's only afterwards that we talk about the match."