“21st Century Learning” – Andy Burnham’s Demos Speech on Labour’s Education Policy Review

23rd August 2011

Andy Burnham has previously faced derision from some quarters for not presenting his proposals on education policy. The pressure was therefore on as he laid out his stall during his speech “21st Century Learning.

The speech is unlikely to register too highly on an education richter scale gorged on drama and transformation. But that’s no bad thing. The thought of starting all over again in a few years time would have horrified teachers and in the midst of the current polarised and ideological debate about free-markets, autonomy and the big-society the speech was refreshingly pragmatic and devoid of dogmatism.

The theme for the day was “reward, reach and relevance” (so we can now pitch Burnham’s 3Rs against Gove’s  3 Pillars.)

The idea of reward was presented in terms of a social contract. In exchange for hard work pupils should reap the rewards of achievement in the future. He emphasised that all young people should be rewarded, not just the half of pupils who went to university. He argued that education policy too often focused on the former, ignoring others because most politicians had themselves been to university. An interesting acknowledgement that the previous Labour government had lost its association with hard work appeared at this point.

In terms of Reach he argued for an emphasis on the difference made to every single child “including how far schools stretch the most able”.

Relevance was the R most directly linked to the theme of “21st Century Learning.” Burnham bemoaned the new “Gold Standard in education which values Latin over Engineering and ICT.” It’s a standard he certainly doesn’t live up to, having admitted he’d considered delivering the speech in Latin but that he could only manage the four words of the Everton Motto. His suggestion that he had “nothing against smart kids doing Latin” was a little more suspect and hardly played to the egalitarian tone of the speech.

So far so philosophical, but there were practical points too:

The first was about bringing apprenticeships under a streamlined UCAS application process. This seemed a good plan which would directly impact on pupils who might otherwise become NEET. I can’t comment on the practicalities of setting up such a system but it would certainly be useful. Pupils have asked me about doing apprenticeships in the past and as a non-specialist I have to admit to not being clued up on where to start. A simpler more standardised system would definitely be welcome. Burnham’s engagement with the apprenticeship scene made for a welcome change from the obsession with University and Oxbridge that has been peddled in recent months.

His second “policy”, about entitlement, clearly needed fleshing out. There was reference to pupils having the opportunity to participate in music lessons and act in plays. The idea was linked to a more holistic view of education which “should be about values and Citizenship too.” The value of this “entitlement” policy remains to be seen. If it is linked to a wholesale questioning of what society needs to do to nurture children and young people, along the lines of the LKM Manifesto it would certainly be welcome. However it could also become an arbitrary tick box process that undermines school autonomy – I know heads for whom the very word “entitlement” inspires panic-inducing fears of top-down dictatorial-ism.

Perhaps the most concrete proposal was for league table reform. Burnham argued that A*-C targets were the right thing at the time and that they brought improvements. However, he argued that Labour had stuck to the approach for too long. Instead he advocated league tables based on Value Added (VA)and/or (worryingly) Contextual Value Added (CVA). The main aim of such a change would be to ensure schools addressed the needs of all pupils rather than just C-D borderliners and encourage schools to focus on pupil progress. I welcome this change, though I’d caveat it with the important concerns about the reliability of Value Added raised by Birmingham University’s Stephen Gorard. I would also urge Burnham to stick to VA rather than CVA which is disturbingly deterministic and un-ambitious. My colleague Garth Stahl would also no doubt throw a fit about the term Value Added- a particular bugbear of his, too.

One of LKM’s biggest interests is in teacher education (initial and continuing.) On this front Burnham spoke about his ambition for teaching as a Masters level profession and referred to the “Licence to teach,” a policy originally proposed by the last Labour government. Of these two suggestions I was disappointed by the former and encouraged by the latter. Whilst international comparison shows that teaching is a Masters level profession in many of the highest achieving systems I am unconvinced by the causal relationship and not aware of any evidence that the best teachers in the UK are those who’ve studied the most. I think a true engagement with the nature of 21st Century learning would show that experience combined with reflection is a better way of doing things. Whilst this can be an important part of Masters research, Burnham would have done better to engage with the move towards school based training and professional development. Professional Learning Communities and so on are just as appropriate a forum. He could then have linked the “Licence to teach” to this with a possible nod towards using Teaching Schools too. Whilst this would have involved welcoming a Tory policy, that would have been entirely appropriate in the context of such a pragmatic speech.

Burnham steered clear from structural and ideological arguments about Free Schools and Academies. This was a wise move. Instead he concluded his speech by invoking an ambition to build a system that is “collaborative and comprehensive, which, according to PISA are the defining feature of the world’s best education systems.”

The speech didn’t set the world alight but that’s not what it needed to do. It needed to start the ball rolling, open up debate and present Burnham as serious and committed. It did all

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of those things so overall it gets 3 and a half stars.


(I’ve never given gradings to speeches before but I quite like the idea of doing so- let me know if you like it and I’ll do it more often)

The full speech is available here