Blair calls for sweeping changes to comprehensives

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair demanded sweeping changes to Britain's comprehensive schools yesterday when he opened a new front in his battle with Old Labour to improve education.

Tony Blair demanded sweeping changes to Britain's comprehensive schools yesterday when he opened a new front in his battle with Old Labour to improve education.

The Government wanted to see rigorous "setting", in which pupils are streamed by subject; more "personalised provision" for high-flyers; more specialist schools; and "centres of excellence" in certain subjects, the Prime Minister said.

His promise to "modernise the comprehensives" would be a top priority if Labour won a second term, because it had focused on raising standards in primary schools since winning power in 1997, aides said.

Measures are expected in Labour's general election manifesto but are likely to be fiercely opposed by party traditionalists, who fear the shake-up would undermine the comprehensive principle.

Mr Blair told a conference organised by Progress, a Labour think-tank: "It means big change from the old comprehensive model. Too often, comprehensives adopted a 'one size fits all' mentality - no setting, uniform provision for all, hostility to the notion of specialisation and centres of excellence within areas of the curriculum."

Some comprehensives held back gifted pupils, he suggested, declaring that: "Modern comprehensives should be as dedicated as any private school to high achievement for the most able." Success at the top would lever up standards for all children, with all schools achieving at least five good GCSE passes for the great majority of their pupils, he insisted. "Comprehensive should cease meaning the same for all; and instead mean equal opportunity for all, to develop their intelligence to the full,"he added.

The "Old Left" was giving credence to Tory claims that a comprehensive system meant "dumbing down," he alleged, accusing the left of "hostility to high achievement" and refusing to recognise that children had different abilities and aptitudes.

"Equal worth does not mean uniform provision and similar outcomes," he said. "On the contrary, it means recognising and providing for the particular talents or needs of each individual. We need to demonstrate this more and more forcibly in our reform of secondary education."

Comprehensives should be "radically diverse" in their character and utterly committed to fulfilling the potential of all their pupils, Mr Blair said. "We want first-rate secondary for all, with the excellence and flexibility within every school to make the most of every pupil."

In his first comments on the draft manifesto launched by the Tories this week, Mr Blair attacked it as "the wackiest collection of half-baked, quarter-thought-out policy any political party has produced for a long time". Labour would have been "eviscerated" if it had produced such a document when in opposition, he said.

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