Last year, I addressed you as Health Secretary.
I’ve had a few career changes since then, not all voluntary, and, as you may have noticed, a job application turned down.
But it is with real pride that I give my first speech today as Shadow Education Secretary.
Holding any role in children’s policy – local or national - is an awesome responsibility. It’s my first but, with two brothers in teaching, you’ll be reassured to know I have back-seat drivers aplenty.
But, much more importantly, my passion in politics is raising aspiration for all.
It was forged by the disorientating experience of going in the 1980s from a Merseyside comprehensive to Cambridge University.
I spent my first two years fearing the tap on the shoulder and a polite request to leave. But, as I began to see past the façade of opinionated self-confidence, I realised just how unfairly we distribute life chances in this country.
It’s still true today – postcode rather than potential determines where a child ends up. Challenging it depends upon breaking down the elites that still predominate in education and the professions.
When I stood for the Labour leadership, I gave my political passion a name - Aspirational Socialism. Let me explain what it means.
It’s not about levelling down, but helping everyone to be the best they can be.
It’s about celebrating success, but always knowing the difference between excellence and elitism.
It’s about giving everyone the confidence to have hopes and dreams and not have aspirations held back by background, circumstances or low expectations of what life will deliver.
But the whole idea is based on the firm understanding that this won’t happen in every community for every person by random chance or in a free-for-all.
It will only work with a collaborative, whole-society approach - where no-one is written off; where we give most to those, and open up the best to those who face the biggest challenges; where success is measured not just in the results that individuals achieve – but also in the togetherness of the society we build.
This is the ‘comprehensive ideal’ and my belief in it is absolutely unshakeable.
Professor Robin Pedley, an early campaigner for comprehensives, said in 1963:
“Comprehensive education does more than open the doors of opportunity to all children. It represents a different, a larger and more generous attitude of mind … the forging of a communal culture by the pursuit of quality with equality, by the education of their pupils in and for democracy, and by the creation of happy, vigorous, local communities in which the school is the focus.”
Some in the media call this the comprehensive dream that never came true. But I disagree. If they came out of London, I could take those commentators to hundreds of academically-outstanding schools in this region which embody it perfectly.
In recent times, it has become unfashionable to talk in these terms – the notion of ‘comprehensive education’ has been allowed to fall into disrepair.
Well, my mission in this job is to rehabilitate it.
Its values are good and I want to explain them afresh.
It’s 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.
My main message today is to reach out to people who share this outlook, and for whom the comprehensive ideal speaks to their professional ethic, and ask for your help in rising to this challenge.
Let’s set out a genuine alternative to the current direction in policy.
I want to give people the chance to contribute to this discussion – as Labour reflects on the good and not so good of our time in government – and will set out a structure and a process in the New Year.
Comprehensive education has become synonymous with secondary schools in the public mind and so we must redefine what ‘comprehensive' means.
It is about more than schools; it’s a ‘whole-child, whole-community’ approach to young people’s development at every stage from 0-19 years.
We must also celebrate what was done in the last 13 years to advance the cause of comprehensive education – even though we didn’t always talk about it in these terms ourselves.
For instance, our Children’s Centres brought together parents and toddlers who may not otherwise have come into contact, knitting together communities.
Our much-improved primary schools today are at the centre of communities, where parents don’t want to run them but rally round with extra support.
And we have thousands of good secondary schools where standards have improved and are in a cycle of improvement.
In 1997, half of all schools failed to achieve the benchmark for good GCSEs – the number is now just one in 12.
One in 12 is one too many. And our challenge now is take those middling schools from average to good and from good to great.
But we don’t do that by unpicking the fabric of our state school system - because it is emphatically not broken.
My critique of the Coalition focuses on three points.
First, they are inflicting an ideology experiment on our schools system – with no real evidence that it will work.
This obsession with structures risks losing focus on standards.
Labour introduced new-start models to address failing standards - and the achievements of many of our academies have been truly remarkable.
I want to keep this diversity of provision within an integrated comprehensive system – and keep the focus on standards, not structures.
The Coalition cast themselves as the heirs to Labour’s reforms to disguise the intensely ideological nature of their own. They are a major departure in many ways.
They promote competition over collaboration and undermine the local authority role.
It’s the outstanding schools that are fast-tracked to Academy status.
And the vision is of an unregulated system with a lack of public accountability.
We hear that Free Schools may have teachers with no qualifications.
We hear that they may be run out of any building.
Apparently, planning guidelines have been issued saying it’s OK to use practically any building – converted prisons, pet shops and funeral parlours.
Not so much Free Schools as ‘freaky schools’.
But the serious point is they run the real risk of bringing division and segregation to our school system and of destabilising existing good provision.
This could be made worse by changes to resource allocation.
The Pupil Premium is not a bad idea in principle. But despite Coalition claims it is not additional to the schools budget – it’s a re-labelling – and if the IFS is right and it may take funds out of the most deprived areas.
After all of the claims that have been made, that would be unforgivable. We will be watching closely.
On capital, we have real reason to believe that ideology rather than need is driving allocation.
Building Schools for the Future would have brought transformation to the areas that most needed it.
In the spending review, schools capital was cut by 60 per cent. To make it all add up, we’re told that 40% cuts are being sought to BSF projects approved in the summer as unaffected.
Again, if that proves to be true, it would be unforgivable.
Lastly, I am also worried about the effect of the Government’s approach to workforce planning – with a free-for-all in pay and conditions.
Teachers are one of our most precious resources and working with you to understand the training and support they need will be a major focus for me.
I am worried about the effect on teacher training of the reforms announced by the Government yesterday – budget cuts and tuition fee hikes in Universities could decrease the numbers we see entering training.
Great teaching and great leadership is paramount to the success of our schools and we will be holding the Government to account for the support they give to teacher training.
Some of the new schools will fail and others will lose momentum as their original founders move on.
I support the continuation of the local authority role in managing fair admissions, carrying out specialised tasks and managing relationships across other local services.
Heads and teachers should be free to innovate to drive up standards in their schools.
My second big criticism of Coalition policy is that it is retreating towards a narrow schools-based focus and not a whole child approach.
Labour put a Secretary of State for Children at the Cabinet table – a move internationally respected.
It meant that someone looked at all policy through the prism of children’s needs.
Almost the first move of the new Government was to scrap the Department for Children, Families and Schools and replace it with the Department for Education.
My worry is that, in time, the schools-focus will leave other crucial services – for instance safeguarding and youth services in the cold.
The move away from a ‘whole-community’ approach carries significant risks.
Safeguarding is an area where we will be keeping the pressure on Government to explain how is it possible to provide an effective safeguarding function in a time of huge cuts to Councils and resources focused on schools.
Over coming weeks, we intend to carry out a survey of Councils on the effect on the safeguarding workforce and on the caseloads they will have.
Toby Perkins will be writing to you and I hope you will help us establish a clear picture of what is happening in this crucial area so we can hold the Government to account.
Michael Gove’s department may still hold the same brief as Children, Schools and Families, but it is clear where the Secretary of State’s focus is.
He has a 1950s sepia-tinted view of childhood, where Dryden, Pope and “our island story” inspire the dreams of every child.
Where there is no real understanding of how sport, music and other extra-curricular activities can lift the confidence of children who are not academic.
Evidence of this is the destructive cuts to the school sport delivery system.
It is this backward-looking approach that brings me to my final point.
There is a rising echo of elitism in the recent education pronouncements of this Government.
Real terms cuts to Sure Start and an ominous promise to “return it to its original focus”.
A disjointed, fragmented schools system with a real risk of more social segregation.
Educational Maintenance Allowance gone.
Tuition fees through the roof.
I can imagine the conversation in front rooms across the North West last night as the Government gave the green light to £9000 tuition fees – parents turning to kids and saying ‘you’d better forget about University then’.
My worry is that the combined effect is to depress aspiration.
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.
When asked about increasing selection at a ‘Friends of Grammar Schools’ event last week, Michael Gove reportedly said:
“My foot is hovering above the pedal… I’ll have to see what my co-driver thinks.”
This issue is too important for nods and winks behind closed doors. If the Coalition are in favour of expanding selection at 11, they should come out and say it.
I will oppose any moves to increase selection – either academic or social.
The research is clear that overall children do better in classes of mixed ability and mixed socioeconomic backgrounds.
In conclusion, our society today may be more unequal than in the 1960s – but that is why a comprehensive approach is more not less important.
The challenges facing young people when they leave school to enter further education, training or work are greater than ever – and we must respond to that.
I want Labour to focus much more in the next decade on the 50 per cent of young people who don’t plan to go to University and to create quality routes into work for them.
So the comprehensive principle does need updating.
I want to start that process today.
I want to talk to parents, teachers, headteachers, support staff, social workers, youth workers and young people about what matters to them.
Our door is open to you.
You are not going to hear us oppose every thing the Government does.
You are not going to hear us defend everything that the previous Labour Government did.
You are not going to hear us announce policies out of the blue without consulting you.
If what I have said today speaks to your values, your experience, your professional ethic, then let’s start this debate and explain afresh the values of a comprehensive education system.
The challenge for me, and for you, is to make this approach speak to every parent’s aspirations to help every child be the best they can be.