Has Burnham signalled a Labour shift on free schools?

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 16 May 2011 in Diary
The shadow education secretary toned down his opposition to free schools at the Fabian conference this weekend

It appears that shadow education secretary Andy Burnham may have shifted his stance on the Conservative policy for free schools.

Speaking at the Fabian Society conference at the weekend, Burnham signalled that he is not against free schools such as the one former-No10-strategist-turned-teacher Peter Hyman is setting up.

Labour blogger Anthony Painter tweeted from the conference: "@andyburnhammp supports Peter Hyman's free school as a Labour alternative to the Tory concept. But also says whole system matters #Fabians."

Labour councillor Jessica Asato added: "Burnham suggests he is not against free schools such as the one Peter Hyman is setting up. Just a concern for the effect on the community."

This could be seen as a subtle move to find a Labour response to Michael Gove's flagship policy on free schools instead of blanket opposition.

Last October, Burnham was taking a much stronger line against the Conservative policy.

Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show, he was asked: "So you are against free schools?"

Burham responded: "Yes I am, and for this very clear reason, Andrew: because they would allow the strongest and the best to get even better at the expense of the rest. And I do not want to see an education system of that kind... I just don't want to see a free market, a free for all in our school system."

He then told The Guardian last November that Labour will have to see what it inherits when it returns to government.

"But certainly," he stated, "there would be no more free schools."

And then in April of this year, he told NASUWT: "There is no evidence that the free schools policy will drive up standards. In fact at worst, as experience in Sweden suggests, they will have a negative impact – not just on standards but on social cohesion."

There is a suggestion that Burnham has tempered his stance in response to the news that Tony Blair's former head of communications Peter Hyman is applying to set up a free school in Newham. Hyman's announcement last week was met with widespread support, including an 'In praise of...' feature in The Guardian.

But Hyman has admitted that he shares some of Burnham's concerns about the government's free schools policy: "There are some who are hostile to the free-school policy and believe that all teachers should steer well clear of it. I share some of their concerns. There are still several issues to do with governance, accountability and funding that need to be sorted out if the policy is to gain wider support."

Either Burnham's support for the Hyman free school is a one-off, or it could be the start of a more nuanced Labour response to the Department for Education's latest schools initiative.

It may be wise of Andy Burnham to clarify his position this week, before Conservatives and Lib Dems do it for him.

Tags: Andy Burnham, Anthony Painter, Fabian Society conference, Free schools, Jessica Asato, Peter Hyman

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