Alan Milburn's radical education ideas

12 Mar 2010

This week I chaired former Cabinet Minister, Alan Milburn, when he gave the annual lecture of the National Education Trust (

 He set out some bold and radical ideas. Indeed, in many ways, this was the vision for the next wave of school reform we might have had if Tony Blair were still Prime Minister.

The NET (of which I must declare an interest as a trustee) is fast gaining a reputation as a key forum for informed, independent thinking on education. So it was appropriate that Mr Milburn used the opportunity to float ideas that build on the review into 'Fair Access to the Professions' which he produced for the government last year.

As a politician who is standing down at the election, Milburn now feels free to say exactly what he believes without worrying about the Party line.

So he felt able to be blunt about what he sees as the barriers to greater social mobility. Despite his presence in government throughout the Blair years, he still feels there is much more to do on school reform and sees educational structures, not parental influence, as the big barrier.

'The problem (of social mobility) is not a shortage of parental aspiration but a shortage of good schools', he argued, 'especially in areas serving the most disadvantaged pupils'.

He said 'education reform needs not just a second wind but needs a new direction'.

For him, that new direction is towards still greater autonomy for schools and - controversially - towards greater marketisation of schools through a voucher-style system of 'credits'. He says this would 'give poorer parents some of the market power that the better-off already have'.

He believes there is currently a 'covert market' in schools with the better-off able to afford to move house, to buy private tuition or to go private. Thus the 'poorer parent finds themselves at the back of the queue for the best schools'. 'Selection by social position still lingers', he added.

So he believes parents with children at under-performing schools should be given the right to choose a new school and this should be given an 'education credit', worth 150% of the unit of pupil funding, as an incentive for other schools to admit their child. Popular schools, he adds, would be permitted to go above their current pupil numbers and, with the credit, would have a financial incentive to do so. 

'I believe that despite the government's progress, further radical action is needed to tackle educational disadvantage', he said.

On school autonomy, Mr Milburn called for a 'clear timetable for making all schools autonomous, either City Academies, or run by faith groups, chains of private sector providers, parents, or charities...a clear timetable to make autonomy the norm not the exception'.

In the question and answer session, Mr Milburn also called for a lifting of the cap on university tuition fees as a way of promoting greater social mobility.

'I take the view that the cap will have to be taken off in order to generate income for universities so they can continue expansion ...but they should be compelled to spend it on bringing in more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds', he said.



User Comments

Mervyn Benford - 25 Mar 2010


Good lecture, challenging ideas, but, as too often in educational debate, blind to some of the fundamental realities too long ignored in provision, namely the priority of younger years and hard evidence of what actually most works for the deprived and disadvantaged. We can discuss and have discussed secondary and higher far too much, largely because that is where the damage of earlier neglect starts to show. It begins far earlier. When the failure sets in it is expensive, and not just the obvuious symptoms. What will higher tutition fees do to erase the hallowed model of educational success rooted in passing exams in which research shows the principal qualities are speed of writing and memory....hardly prime vocational qualifications. No wonder escalating exam success still draws astute complainhts that we are still not producung people who can think for themselves. WE need to sort this all out rather quickly as a radically differrent future is racing towards us, and especially those very young children in the system already.


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