Tony Blair, the Labour leader, pressed ahead with his plans for "accelerated learning" for bright children last night in the teeth of hostile fire from Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, and some - but not all - teaching unions.
Mr Blair tried to move the education debate on from the issue of selective schools, raised by Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a grammar school. In a speech at Southwark Cathedral, south London, he said Labour was "refusing to go back to the 11-plus but refusing too to make do with uniformity". Outlining plans to "fast-track" able pupils by moving them up a year in subjects they are good at, he said: "It is important that we break down the rigidity in our system that assumes all pupils learn at the same speed in different subjects - the rigid equation of ages and stages."
He went on: "This does not mean 12-year-olds suddenly becoming sixth- formers, but it does mean bright children being stretched instead of being bored in subjects where they have a particular aptitude."
The speech was seized on by Mr Heseltine in the Commons, who claimed Mr Blair was advocating streaming. Mr Heseltine quoted a speech by the Labour leader last une: "Streaming, with its rigid distribution of children into bright, average and backward camps, is a waste of talent." Mr Heseltine commented: "This isn't so much a case of accelerated learning - this is accelerated hypocrisy."
Mr Blair's aides said his speech last year distinguished between "streaming", which Labour still opposes, and "setting", which the party supports. Streaming divides pupils into classes by general ability, while setting divides pupils by ability in a particular subject. "Accelerated learning" was setting, because it applied subject by subject, a spokesman said.
Nigel de Gruchy, leader of one of the main teaching unions, the NASUWT, said fast-tracking was "half-baked".
He added: "The schemes themselves produce huge organisational problems for schools. It can work for some individuals in certain circumstances, but there is no way we can wave a magic wand and ... pretend that we are going to have some national answer."
But Doug McAvoy, leader of the rival NUT, welcomed the "principle" behind the scheme. "If a particular youngster shows themselves to be able in a particular subject, then they ought to be able to move ahead faster than the others, if that's to their advantage," he said.
Fred Forrester, deputy general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the main Scottish teachers' union, pointed out that there had been no streaming or selection in Scotland since the early 1970s.
But all pupils in Scotland are assigned one of three "standard grades" in each subject from age 14. Children are taught in different "sets" if there are enough taking a particular subject.
"It is notable that mathematicians are keener on extending setting than teachers in other subjects," he said.
A spokesman for David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said a Labour government would not ban streaming. "We are not talking about banning things, we are talking about encouraging this approach which we want to be developed a lot more," he said.
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