Tories to pay for places at private schools

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Michael Howard will pledge today to create tens of thousands of new school places under far-reaching proposals to give parents greater choice of education for their children.

The measures, which echo plans to offer more choice in the NHS, include a promise to pay for children to attend privately run schools as long as they charge no more than the local cost of state education. The Tories hope to encourage a new range of private, church and voluntary schools to increase choice to parents.

Conservatives would scrap limits on the number of surplus school places in each education authority, instead allowing headteachers to increase places by 10 per cent to encourage expansion by popular schools.

Headteachers will also get the power to set their own admissions policies, opening up the prospect of new grammar schools across the country.

Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, claimed the Tories would spend more on schools than Labour, increasing a planned £47bn next year to £62bn in 2009. The party also proposes giving all schools grant-maintained status, to give them freedom over spending and borrowing. An expansion fund will be set up for extra classrooms or new schools.

Mr Collins said the reforms could make traditional catchment areas "wither away". He indicated the party would also remove the right to admissions appeals, insisting that "it should be for headteachers and governors to have the final say over exclusions and admissions."

Labour is set to announce a massive increase in its specialist secondary schools programme. The Government is believed to be approaching its target of 2,000 specialist schools two years ahead of schedule. The biggest increase is in maths specialist schools, where the number will go up from 76 to 130 this September - a response to a recent government report on maths warning that the subject was in crisis.

The announcement will coincide with Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, putting his five-year plan to the Cabinet. Ministers hope to expand the the number of City Academy programmes - under which schools in inner-city areas can be privately run by sponsors with state aid - from 60 to about 200 by the end of the decade.

* Science teachers could be next in line for a salary rise in the wake of the Government's decision to boost the pay of maths teachers so they can earn more than £50,000 a year.

Heads and union leaders argued that singling out maths teachers for a pay rise would divert badly needed recruits to subjects such as physical sciences and modern languages.