Election '97:Tories at war over schools

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The Independent Online
John Major's plans to put a grammar school in every town were collapsing in confusion last night. Tory officials and senior Whitehall figures bickered behind the scenes about how to deliver the policy without being accused of offering bribes.

While some officials hinted that payments to induce schools to go selective could be announced early next week, others reported "panic" and "an attack of the wobbles" at Conservative Central Office over the proposal.

The party appeared last night to have painted itself into a corner after The Independent revealed it was planning to offer around pounds 500,000 under its specialist schools programme to comprehensives willing to convert.

Party officials know that without financial incentives, the grammar school scheme will never take off, because schools would be reluctant to join. They also know the offer of cash inducements would be attacked mercilessly by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

A senior Conservative source said: "The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of schools aren't actually wanting to change to selection. If we are talking about a grammar school in every town there would have to be costs involved. There would have to be, putting it in crude terms, a bribe attached." He said publicity over the plan to offer payments to schools to become grammar schools was causing "a degree of panic".

"This 'bribes' fuss is giving them an attack of the wobbles," he said.

While sources at the Department for Education and Employment were still enthusiastic about the scheme last night, and were hinting at an announcement early next week, officials at party headquarters at first denied the scheme existed and then came up with a compromise option.

Schools could make dual applications to be grammar schools and specialist schools, they suggested, and could receive payments for specialisation rather than for selection.

Thus, selective schools could receive payments without there being any allegations that they had been bribed to change their status.

However, such a scheme would be unlikely to work. Only a handful of grant maintained schools have taken up the existing opportunities to become fully selective, and of 1,500 responses to a recent government consultation in the issue, only 15 were in favour.

Under the plans, up to 720 secondary schools - one in five - would be able to select either by academic ability, or by aptitude for a specialist subject. They would have to raise pounds 100,000 in sponsorship and would then receive a further pounds 500,000 on average in government grants. The Conservative manifesto promised an expansion of the Government's specialist schools programme, covering arts, languages, sport and technology, to one in five schools. The plan would add academic selection to that list.

Labour and the teachers' unions have already attacked the plan and have demanded to know how the total bill of pounds 360m, far more than is earmarked in the budget for specialist schools, would be paid.

The Conservative Party has not attached a price tag to its manifesto plans. It has already created 150 specialist schools and budgeted for a further 300, but the promise would raise add another 270 to bring the total to 720.

Arguments between the Department for Education and Employment and Conservative Central Office are not unusual, as education officials battle to implement pledges made by the Prime Minister. Two years ago, after Mr Major promised nursery education for all four-year-olds, education ministers argued against a voucher scheme but were over-ruled. It seems likely the same may happen again over the issue of grammar schools.

John Dunford, former president of the Secondary Heads' Association and head teacher of Durham Johnston comprehensive school, said the scheme was "a scandalous waste of public money". He said: "Selective schools should receive less money per pupil than non-selective schools and not more. The less able the children, the greater the need to have smaller classes."

Asked about the plans yesterday, John Major failed to confirm or deny their existence, although he said there would be no shortfall in funding. "The policy is to create a grammar school in every town if that is what the parents wish. Our education policy is based upon choice in terms of resources for education generally."

In a major speech on education in Birmingham, Tony Blair set out 21 steps for improvement and declared that the subject was his number one priority for Britain. "There is no magic or instant solution. Raising standards will be a long and sometimes hard task but it is the paramount challenge facing a new government. We are ready for the task," he said.

"The key lies in government giving priority to education and bringing together a series of initiatives that, when combined, will drive up standards in our schools.

"We should not grab hold of one new piece of educational dogma, but instead develop a powerful strategy based on clear principles, ambitious goals and innovative means to achieve them," the Labour leader said.