Election '97: Labour's plans for schools unveiled

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The Independent Online
A network of inner-city specialist schools sharing resources with a nearby "family" of schools will be announced today by Tony Blair.

Labour is playing down the issue of how specialist schools will select their pupils. Instead, in a speech at Birmingham University, Mr Blair will emphasise that his party is interested in standards, not structures or selection.

But parents' groups yesterday said the plans to increase the number of schools specialising in technology, modern languages, sport or arts could lead to unfair selection of pupils. They are concerned that Labour is so nervous about opposing the Conservative notion of parental choice that it will fail to tackle the central question of school admissions. They say the Conservative policy of promoting different types of school, including 150 specialist schools, has led to chaos in places such as Bromley where all schools have agreed to select 15 per cent of their pupils.

The Tories promised in their manifesto that a fifth of secondary schools (around 900) would become specialist in five years. Schools receive a grant from the Government and have to raise an equivalent amount from private sources. Mr Blair will reveal that Labour will use the money already pledged by the Conservatives for specialist schools to create 300 over the next four years. He will attack the Tories' programme as unplanned and incoherent and promise instead to target money for specialist schools, mainly in technology and modern languages, at the inner cities.

Specialist schools will be expected to share their expertise with neighbouring schools. They will not be given money for new technology equipment unless they agree to make it available to others.

Labour sources said yesterday the issue of selection to specialist schools would become "irrelevant" because of schools' co-operation. However, they made it clear that the 1993 government guidelines on admissions which allow schools to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on aptitude without consulting the Secretary of State for Education, would remain.

Margaret Tulloch of the Campaign for State Education, a parents' pressure group, said: "Most parents want their child to go to a local school. If a child is excluded because he does not meet the criterion for the local school's specialism, then that would be unfair. Labour needs to work out a new national admissions policy, not just one that would work in north London." Twenty per cent of parents fail to get the school of their choice. In London the figure is half.

Mr Blair will also outline proposals for a General Teaching Council to improve recruitment to the profession and to deal with incompetent teachers. Comprehensive schools, he will argue, need to be more flexible and offer fast-tracking to the ablest pupils.

n Tony Blair stressed his commitment to Scottish devolution yesterday and insisted that there would be no tax-raising constraints on a Scottish Parliament set up by a Labour government.

Mr Blair said on a Scottish radio phone-in programme that there was no inconsistency in his party's plans, and promised that ultimate sovereignty would remain at Westminster.