Delivering the Romanes lecture at St John's College, Oxford, the Prime Minister said that "diversity with excellence" had to become the hallmark of the state secondary education system. Mr Blair said that although there was no great enthusiasm for a return to the 11-plus, the comprehensive system had to do more to draw out pupils' talents.
In a direct appeal to headteachers and local education authorities, he called for a major extension of specialist comprehensives to offer excellence in technology, sport, the arts and modern languages. Mr Blair's emphasis on "excellence" is part of a wider drive by the Government to persuade state schools to make themselves more attractive for middle-class parents. Ministers are determined to halt the "middle class flight" from inner- city comprehensives that often leaves schools at the bottom of the results heap.
But headteachers had to realise, Mr Blair said, that in the late Nineties the traditional comprehensive idea of "one-size-fits-all" education was failing a generation of pupils. "Children do indeed have different abilities. To admit it is not elitist, but necessary if we are to build an education system around the equal worth of each individual child," Mr Blair said.
"We need to abandon once and for all a mindset which views only two broad options; an entire system based on selection, with some kind of 11-plus, on the one hand; or, on the other, standardised monolithic comprehensives offering a standardised monolithic provision for pupils whose needs are highly diverse and individual.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said Downing Street wanted to build on the improving relations between the Government and the teaching profession. "He has noticed in the last few months that there is a far more positive debate going on between the Government and the teaching profession about the nature of the reforms and the scale of the reforms," the spokesman said.
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