'Go grammar' lure for schools

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The Conservatives are to offer "bribes" of pounds 500,000 in government grants to comprehensive schools which agree to go selective.

In a bid to achieve John Major's ambition of a grammar school in every town, a programme costing pounds 360m will be announced shortly, allowing up to 720 secondary schools to select pupils by aptitude or by academic ability.

The Government was forced to drop plans for more selection from its Education Bill last month, and last night the plan was denounced by Labour and teachers' unions as "bribes" to cash-starved schools which were ideologically opposed to selection.

Schools which wanted to take part in the scheme would have to raise pounds 100,000 from company sponsorship or other donations. They would then be able to apply for grants of pounds 100,000 plus an extra pounds 100 for each pupil each year for four years. An average secondary school with 1,000 pupils would collect pounds 500,000 from the Government plus an extra pounds 100,000 in sponsorship.

The plans have been drawn up under the umbrella of an existing programme which has already created 150 specialist technology, sport, languages and arts schools.

The Conservative manifesto has promised that the scheme would be extended to one in five of the 3,600 secondary schools in England and Wales. The new announcement will invite applications not only from schools wanting to develop the existing specialisms, but also from those which want to become grammar schools.

The Government's budget for the next three years makes provision for the creation of an extra 300 specialist schools, taking the number to 450, but more money will have to be found to raise the total to 720.

The announcement will revive memories of incentives offered by the Government to schools wanting to opt out of local authority control. Despite promises that there would be no financial advantages in opting out, capital grants of up to pounds 500,000 were given to some schools. There were also extra revenue payments which were stopped after criticism from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The revelation will cause anger among Labour ranks as the party turns the spotlight on education today. The party's leader, Tony Blair, will say in a speech in the Midlands that he wants money from the specialist schools programme to be directed to poorer schools in inner cities.

Last night the party's education spokesman, David Blunkett, said the Conservatives were "totally confused" over their plans for education.

"Turning the specialist schools programme into plans for a grammar school in every town would mean further backing for the best schools at the expense of lifting standards in the inner cities," he said.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "This is a bribe to try to persuade schools that are strapped for cash to become increasingly selective."

Mr Blair is likely to criticise the plans in his speech to educationists today.

As Labour stresses that it wants a positive campaign from now on, he will emphasise four important aspects of the party's education policies.

Standards must be more important than school organisation, he will say, and he will criticise what he believes is a Conservative obsession with the mechanics of how schools are controlled and funded.

Mr Blair will also emphasise his party's commitment to making sure that all pupils achieve five high-grade GCSEs or their vocational equivalent by the age of 18.

Under Labour there should be a new emphasis on lifelong learning, he will say.

He will also expand on plans to create a General Teaching Council to oversee the profession. Teachers' unions have had too much control over what happens in schools, he will suggest.

"It is intolerable for children to be saddled with teachers who can't teach, and intolerable for the image of teaching to be defined by far- flung resolutions at union conferences," he will say.

Speaking on Radio 4 yesterday, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, claimed that Labour had not worked to raise standards in the past.

"It is hypocritical for Tony Blair and David Blunkett to maintain that their priority is education when what they are against is choice and diversity," she said.

"What they have been against over the last 16 or 17 years is the rise in standards."