As the Labour leader called for fewer mixed-ability groups and criticised some comprehensives for low expectations, John Major dismissed his speech to a Oxfordshire girls' school as a public relations exercise. He said Mr Blair should apologise for 30 years of his party's education policies in Labour local authorities.
"If this is Mr Blair's policy we don't have to hear him saying it, we can see Labour education authorities actually doing it. Where they can actually take action, nothing whatsoever is happening," he said.
Mr Blair said at Didcot Girls' comprehensive that mixed ability schools were failing some pupils. A Labour government would ask all schools to stream pupils by ability unless they could prove that they could deliver high standards through mixed-ability teaching, he said. While many comprehensives were doing well the disparity between the best and the worst in British education was still far too great.
"Mixed ability teaching makes heroic assumptions about resources, teachers and social context," he said. "The modernisation of the comprehensive principle requires that all pupils are encouraged to progress as far and as fast as they are able. Grouping children according to ability can be an important way of making that happen."
Labour would reform both teacher training and school inspections to encourage the use of streaming and would expect its new, highly-qualified "advanced skills teachers" to find ways of making it work.
Mr Blair said Labour's first priority should be to raise pupils' performances in maths, English, science and technology. The future of Britain's 160 grammar schools should be a matter for parents. "We will not waste the energy of government in a vendetta against grammar schools. No good school will close under Labour," he said.
The plan drew criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, though. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, said Mr Blair's commitment to comprehensive education proved he was against the choice and diversity championed by the Government. "The Labour Party would abolish grant-maintained schools, specialist schools and grammar schools and would return to a monolithic comprehensive system, except of course for the children of some Labour frontbenchers, including Tony Blair himself," she said.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, dismissed the speech as another attempt by Labour to steal the Tories' clothes. "They'll be telling teachers what colour chalk to use next. Labour should be making a commitment to increase resources for education to reverse the Tory cuts that have done so much damage," he said.
There was also criticism from within the Labour Party, with Graham Lane, chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' education committee, accusing Mr Blair of allowing a right-wing spin to be put on his words. "There are many people in the party who wonder if Labour is committed to comprehensive education, and the answer is `yes'. So why have a situation where doubt is sown?" he said.
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