Interview: Andy Burnham, shadow education secretary

Andy Burnham is still in migration phase, getting to grips with the role of shadow education secretary after moving from his previous brief in government on health. But the enthusiasm he holds for his new post is clear.

The MP for Leigh is already familiar with education-related policies, having had experience of children and young people's issues in previous periods as both Culture and Health Secretary. He also jokes that with two brothers in senior teaching positions, he has plenty of "backseat drivers" to keep him in check.

Having arrived in post following a number of major announcements from Education Secretary Michael Gove, Burnham is keen to hit the ground running and start to challenge what he dubs Gove's "ideological experiment".

"My greatest concern is that they're introducing an elitist education system," says Burnham. "Money is following those prepared to take part in the experiment, rather than those that need it."

He sees the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme and emphasis on academies and free schools as evidence that the worst-off families will be left without support, adding: "It's an attack on state education. If we have 10 years of free schools, we'll be looking at a very divided, segregated system."

Burnham is also worried that the Department for Education has too narrow a view on children. "Education is about all-round support," he says, citing early intervention as one of Labour's successes. "We began with Sure Start and built on that to create an ambitious view of pre-school education linked to physical and personal development."

But he doubts that Graham Allen's review into early intervention will help to keep the momentum going on programmes started under Labour. "Some of the things that had been established, such as breakfast clubs, are being questioned again," he says. "Early support is so important and we don't need to relearn that."

Burnham sees much of what Gove has announced as a step backwards. He says the removal of the duty for local authorities to have children's trusts, will be seen as a missed opportunity, while he believes that the scrapping of ContactPoint was a mistake. "Information sharing has been one of the big lessons of recent times," he says.

Another of Burnham's greatest concerns is the damage being experienced by youth services across the country. This was confirmed by his meeting with a group of youth workers from Merseyside in his first week as shadow education secretary. And following last week's spending review, Burnham feels things are not going to get any easier.

Despite the government promise to protect the schools budget, Burnham is angered that funds will be diverted from the education maintenance allowance (EMA). "Scrapping EMA, alongside massive hikes to tuition fees, means that the government's claims to support social mobility will ring very hollow for young people from less well-off backgrounds," he says.

He also claims the government has "sold out our children", after Chancellor George Osborne revealed the much-lauded pupil premium will be financed from within the overall settlement for schools, claiming that the coalition had promised the premium would be funded from outside the schools budget.

Labour might have lost the election, but Burnham says this was not because of its record on education or health. "We have been reflecting on what we got right and wrong, but if you take health and education, I think we did a bloody good job," he says. But responding to accusations that Labour enforced an overzealous top-down policy he admits: "We didn't always get the balance right."

Burnham might still be getting to grips with his brief, but whether he talks about primary care trusts or local authorities, his concern over government policy is forcefully articulated, as he warns: "We are seeing the creation of a sink-or-swim system for health and education."



  • Burnham was born in 1970 in Merseyside, Liverpool to an engineer father and receptionist mother
  • He went to a comprehensive secondary school and won a place to read English at Cambridge University
  • He was elected as MP for Leigh in 2001 and appointed health minister in 2006
  • Gordon Brown made Burnham chief secretary to the Treasury in 2007
  • The following year he took up the post of Culture Secretary and in June 2009 became Health Secretary
  • Following Gordon Brown's resignation, Burnham stood as a Labour leadership candidate, finishing fourth

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