Cameron pledges no return to grammars or 11-plus

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The Independent Online

David Cameron has pledged that there will never be a return to grammar schools under a Conservative government led by him.

The Tory leader's announcement yesterday brings to an end years of fierce division between Labour and the Tories over whether to revive the grammar school system.

Hardly an election has gone by since the introduction of the comprehensive system in the mid-1960s without the Conservatives calling for a return to a grammar school in every town.

Mr Cameron is the first Tory leader to be against reviving them. He told an audience of headteachers, teachers and parents: "Under a future Conservative government, there will be no return to the 11-plus and no return to a grammar school system.

"The Conservative party I'm leading doesn't want to go back to the 11-plus and doesn't want to go back to the grammar school."

He said the division between the two parties was "an old, sterile argument".

His announcement, which will anger traditionalists and right-wingers in the party, was one of a series of pledges made during a visit to Chalvedon School and Sixth-Form College in Basildon, Essex.

Questioned by sixth-formers during an A-level politics lesson, he also made it clear he would stand by the Government's policy of introducing top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year - a U-turn on the Tory election manifesto, when the party pledged to scrap fees.

He also ruled out a cap on student numbers, another departure from the election manifesto. The Conservatives had argued that Labour's target of getting 50 per cent of pupils into higher education by the end of the decade was too high.

"I'm afraid I think we're going to have to keep student fees," he said. "If you want to go to university, you want to go to universities that are well funded with good facilities.

"I also want as many young people as can benefit from a university education to be able to go there.

"The money has got to come from somewhere.

"Politicians who promise things but don't actually say how they are going to be paid for are no good at all.

"Let's by all means look at how much you have to be earning before you pay your debt back - repayments are high for some people and I think you have to start paying back too early - but I think the sort of contribution that is being made is about right."

David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, made it clear later that all the party's education policies were "up for grabs".

"We're not committed to anything we said in the manifesto," he said. "It's a blank sheet of paper."

In particular, he added, the party was no longer committed to "passports" for parents - under which all parents would be given a "voucher" equivalent to the amount spent per pupil in state schools that could be used to purchase a place in a private school.

In his speech, Mr Cameron - while making it clear he was opposed to a return to grammar schools - did make the case for an extension of selection within the existing system.

Under Labour, specialist secondary schools can select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude if they offer one of four specialisms - including foreign languages and economics.

Mr Cameron said he wanted that extended to all subjects, arguing he could see no reason why schools should be forbidden from selecting a proportion of pupils in subjects such as maths and English as well. He argued for "more selection within schools than selection by schools", calling for a big increase in the amount of "setting" in secondary schools, grouping pupils according to their ability in individual subjects.

He said he would like to "lead a campaign for more setting in school by each subject and in every school".

Despite Tony Blair's support for setting, its use had hardly increased since 1997 - when it was used in 40 per cent of all lessons.

In a phrase reminiscent of Tony Blair's earlier pronouncements on education (when Labour was committed to "standards not structures"), Mr Cameron said he wanted to concentrate on the quality of delivery rather than "structures and organisations".

Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said last night: "David Cameron wrote the Tory manifesto that contained pupil passports and a pledge to scrap tuition fees.

"In less than 12 months, he has completely changed his mind. The only thing pupils and parents can be sure of is that the Tories can't be trusted.

"Extending selection by ability and backing fees proves the Tories are still more concerned with the prospects of the few at the expense of the many."

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said Mr Cameron's pledge on grammar schools "conceals the potential for increased selection".

"The existing facility for secondary schools to select up to 10 per cent of their intake by aptitude is a stalking horse for the Tories to return to selection by more subtle means than the 11-plus," he said.