Teachers' leader accuses Kelly of creating an unfair '14-plus' system

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The Independent Online

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has been accused of turning the clock back 60 years and ushering in a new era of selection at 14 in schools.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has been accused of turning the clock back 60 years and ushering in a new era of selection at 14 in schools.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the 160,000-strong Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said yesterday that the Government's decision to keep academic and vocational routes in education separate would reinforce the class divide in schools. The move would see a return to the days when grammar and technical schools were set up by the 1944 Education Act. Dr Bousted told her union's annual conference in Torquay: "The clear intent to create a 14-plus selection is stunningly retrograde."

The comments are likely to cause a split in the Labour party and be seized on by its opponents in the run-up to the general election. Tony Blair has always insisted that he opposes a return to selection.

Dr Bousted's comments reflect anger across the education world over the decision to scrap plans for an overarching diploma to embrace GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications, as recommended by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson. Instead, ministers want to encourage more youngsters to opt for vocational education from the age of 14 and spend up to two days a week at college or on work experience learning a trade.

Dr Bousted said yesterday: "There is a danger that if you divide at 14 you end up with an education system divided along class lines. Middle-class children will follow academic courses as long as they're perceived to be of more value. Middle-class parents will want them to follow this path. The last thing we need in the 21st century is to go back to grammar schools and technical schools."

She added that ministers' "supposition that half the cohort is well served by GCSEs and A-levels and that we need a better vocational diet for the rest is incorrect, deeply divisive and wasteful of the nation's talent."

She also accused the Government of "astonishing ignorance of, or refusal to recognise, the negative effects that the exam burden has on the quality of learning" , by saying in its White Paper on exam reform that the present system was "valid, reliable, fair and transparent" . She asked: "What planet are they living on? Our students are the most over-tested in the world. Our schools spent last year £680m on public examinations. What a waste.

"Remember, a student taking eight GCSEs will sit an average of 40 external exams and remember, that this exam burden takes, out of the six terms of a GCSE course, two terms of teaching time in revision."

Ms Kelly, while recognising the Government's decision to ditch the diploma was "controversial" , insisted to the conference that her reforms would "develop the best vocational education we have ever seen in this country" . She insisted that the specialist diplomas to be introduced to cover vocational skills would be "rightly valued at least as much as any number of GCSEs and A- levels" . The courses would be designed by employers and universities and delivered with their support, she said.