Burnham’s utilitarian approach eschews Latin


Andy Burnham, the Shadow Education Secretary, gave a speech at Demos this  month in which he sought to articulate the main themes being explored by Labour’s Schools Policy Review.  Significantly, he did not commit a future Labour government to overturning the coalition government’s new Free Schools or Academies. Indeed he didn’t mention them.  Its probably worth noting, in this respect, that ,by the next election, the majority of  secondary schools in England could have already converted to academy status.

So what are Labour’s themes?

Burnham said he would look to build a school system in England based on three clear principles:

First, where hard work is properly rewarded and all young people have something to aim for beyond school.

Second, where we reach every single child, by judging schools on the difference they make for every individual student – including how far schools stretch the brightest

Third, where learning is made relevant to life today, building the character and qualities young people will need to succeed in 21st century

He said “Reward, reach, relevance – these will be my 3Rs to guide schools reform in the 21st century.” Burnham wants a school  system that is   “comprehensive and collaborative”

Mike Baker who was chairing a discussion session at Demos picked out 10 themes from Burnhams speech   which struck  him as significant:

Labour’s approach will reject the current nostalgia for Latin and rote-learning or what Burnham called the ‘back to the future’ approach. The EBacc will not be applied universally.

The Policy review will take a broad view of education, including an emphasis on creativity.

It will seek clarity for those students taking a vocational route.

There could be a UCAS-style ‘clearing’ process for those seeking to enter apprenticeships, with the best opportunities going to those who work the hardest.

League tables will be reformed, using Value-Added or Contextual Value-added measures.

A minimum entitlement for all pupils (e.g. to one-to-one tuition) is being considered as is an expectation that every student should achieve a grade Cat GCSE in Maths and English.

Labour will take a more ambitious view of the role of work experience and placements to encourage social mobility.

An updated version of Tomlinson will be brought back, introducing a true, broad Baccalaureate.

teaching may become an all Masters-degree profession

Local Authorities will be given a clearer planning role and a role to encourage collaboration between schools

Burnham believes that what he calls the market model “encourages schools jealously to guard the best of what they’ve got; and will produce winners and losers, where young people get trapped in struggling institutions”.  How this last theme will fit with a school system dominated by autonomous state schools is hard to see but he clearly reflects Labours concerns that the current focus on autonomy  may ,potentially, lead to an atomised system in which collaboration between schools is reduced and the most vulnerable suffer because the support services, currently offered to them by local authorities, are cut back.

Ministers for their part,  point out that Academies, as part of their funding agreements, need to demonstrate a collaborative approach and show that they are community focused

Burnham seeks to caricature Goves approach to the curriculum by focusing on Latin as an unwelcome blast from the past. The argument goes -Gove prefers to focus on a dead language rather than, for instance, ICT that is more relevant to the workplace. There are suggestions here of a utilitarian approach to education-in other words education is about preparing pupils exclusively  for the jobs market, a view  shared by some former Labour Education Secretaries .  So, rather than Latin, Burnham prefers engineering, business studies and ICT to create “a route into work” for Britain’s young people.  But Burnham may be missing the zeitgeist. Many more state schools are taking up Latin than, say, five years ago. And the Independent newspaper, not renowned, it has to be said, as a hotbed of reactionary sentiment, opined last  week ‘Latin is the maths of the humanities – a training in analytical thought for which no previous knowledge is required. It fires the imagination of the young with its goddesses, gladiators and mythological flying horses. It offers a great foundation for later language learning. Its students do better in reading, comprehension, vocabulary and conceptual thinking. Ipsa scientia potestas est’

It is worth reflecting what  Schumacher said about education. He agreed that  science and engineering produce know-how, but the task of education should lie first and foremost with the know-what – the transmission of ideas of value so that we know what to do (with the know-how). Thus, Schumacher argues that a science and technology-focused education system can be like a dead-end street – “know-how is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end.”

Meanwhile Andy Burnham and his team will be gearing up,  over the summer,  to launch attacks  on the Education Bill, still with the Lords. One area where the Government is vulnerable  is  the new national careers service  and advice and guidance in schools. It seems that most pupils will not have access to face to face professional  careers advice in schools , as schools will opt for the cheapest  option-access to advice through  a web portal  . The BIS has provided funds for  adult face to face guidance but the DFE has provided none for the same service  for  schools. Who will suffer most from this?. The most disadvantaged pupils, in other words those pupils who are supposed to be the key priority of the coalition government. Both the Commons Select Committee and Simon Hughes the  ‘Access tsar’ have  recently stressed the importance of face to face advice.