Labour wants to 'speed up' learning in schools

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR will tomorrow propose a new departure for British schools: allowing younger children to be taught with groups of older pupils if they are bright enough.

In an attempt to mount a Labour fightback on education after last week's battering over Harriet Harman's choice of school for her son, the Labour leader will call for more "accelerated learning". This allows children to be grouped in sets for different subjects, according to ability and interest, rather than by age.

He will also promise moves to bring the best teachers to inner-city "sink" schools. Labour may offer more cash and better opportunities to teachers in tough areas. And, in a separate move, Labour is drawing up plans to let state schools borrow from banks.

"Accelerated learning" is being pioneered at The Marches school in Oswestry, Shropshire and by Labour-controlled Birmingham Education Authority and its chief education officer, Tim Brighouse. Among its successes is the Grove School in Handsworth, where four 11-year-olds have been given special tuition and entered for GCSEs and gained grades of C and above.

Though some primary schools have tried "vertical grouping" (mixing different ages) and "high-fliers" have occasionally been put in for the 11-plus or for GCSEs a year early, "accelerated learning" has never been tried out systematically in the state sector before.

Labour believes its new emphasis on "setting" may defuse the row over selection which erupted when Ms Harman chose a grammar school for her son.

However, the internal row over Labour's education policy was fuelled when the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, called for a "vast capital sum" to fund its education plans for higher standards in the classroom. The Labour leadership has been anxious to restrict any spending pledges in advance of a general election.

Mr Blair's setpiece speech tomorrow will concentrate on improving education standards for pupils at Britain's inner-city schools. Improving the quality of teaching, and the involvement of parents, will be a key theme.

Birmingham plans more initiatives, including a network of schools offering specialised courses for homework and school holidays to harness children of mixed ages with specific interests. Education experts argue that the structure of schools, with their rigid divisions of classes determined by age, could be broken down if accelerated learning takes off.

At a conference in Rotherham, organised by the Labour MP Denis MacShane, David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, said that local authority schools should be allowed to group together to borrow money against their assets. The Government wants opted-out schools only to be able to borrow money.

Mr Blunkett said: "The system will mean local schools being able to do a deal with the merchant banks and we are currently exploring this to see what the possibilities would be." But Mr Blunkett's plans were in sharp contrast to those of Mr Hattersley, who told BBC Radio 4's Today programme Labour must "decide soon how much money it is going to invest in education and it has got to be specific about it, and of course it means more.

"There is no way we can run the education system Tony Blair wants without a vast capital programme and I think a revenue programme as well."

The Conservatives too kept up the attack. Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, attacked the "hypocrisy of modern Labour politics". Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, accused Labour of "organised hypocrisy" in a desperate attempt to win power.