Major accused of missing key issues

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The Independent Online
FRAN ABRAMS

Education Correspondent

Labour launched a furious attack on John Major last night after he refused to rule out forcing schools to become grant maintained. The Prime Minister was either complacent or ill-informed and his remarks were insulting to parents who had chosen to stay with local authorities, opposition leaders said.

As GCSE results were published which showed that the Government would be very unlikely to meet its targets for improving qualifications, Labour accused Mr Major of failing to address crucial issues.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the revival of opting out as a mainstay of government policy offered little hope for the future. Instead, the Government should concentrate on meeting its targets for qualification rates on a par with France, Germany and Japan. Ministers hope 85 per cent of young people will achieve five or more GCSEs by 2000 but yesterday's results revealed falling pass rates in English and maths.

Mr Blunkett said: "The Prime Minister is either deeply complacent or extremely ill-informed. To return to the rhetoric of John Patten ... illustrates the dogmatic irrelevance of his thinking."

Mr Blunkett was responding to remarks by Mr Major that he would like to see all schools opt out. Although he said there were no plans to coerce them into doing so at present, he hinted that this might happen in the future.

Yesterday, education ministers appeared to be trying to talk down the Prime Minister's remarks. Lord Henley, education and employment minister, said there was no hint of coercion. "As other schools see the benefits of opting out, I am sure they will follow that lead," he said.

The opposition dismissed Mr Major's statement as an attempt to revive a failed policy. Ministers had predicted that 3,000 schools would opt out by next April, but so far only 1,080 have done so. In the past year just 50 have voted to do so compared with 550 in the 1992-93 school year.

Opposition groups pointed out that a number of other initiatives proposed by Mr Major had already taken place.

His call for schools to set local targets for attainment came three months after a letter to all schools on the subject. His plan for discussions on discipline was pre-empted by the announcement to headteachers of an inquiry into behaviour by Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

The Prime Minister said he would like to make it easier for independent schools to opt in to the state system but last night officials stressed there were no plans to change the current rules, under which two schools have already become state-funded and others hope to do so. They also said rules to aid the expansion of popular schools were in place and the closure of failing schools was already in law. No new initiatives were being planned at present, officials said.

Martin Rogers, of Local Schools Information, a group set up by local authorities to monitor opting out, said: "I thought the Government appeared to be letting it die a natural death ...parents and governors are killing it off by ignoring it."

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