Major's push for schools to opt out

Major's schools plan
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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

A new drive to make every state school grant-maintained is signalled today by John Major, the Prime Minister, along with measures to encourage independent schools to opt into the system, a crackdown on discipline and a push to raise standards in schools.

The ambitious pledges also encompasses an examination of how popular schools could be expanded, while Mr Major hinted that more money might be earmarked for education if public spending savings can be found elsewhere.

Outlining the most radical aspect of the package of proposals in his first substantial interview since winning the Tory party leadership contest last month, the Prime Minister said : "We are examining how to further extend both choice and diversity in schools. The objective ... would be that all publicly-funded schools would be run as free self-governing schools, and to trust the head teachers, the teachers and governing bodies of schools to see how we can give them more freedom to offer choice and diversity," he tells The Times in the interview.

The Prime Minister is not at this stage proposing to force state schools to become self-governing, but he has not ruled out compulsion either. The notion that some independent schools could be enticed to return to the state sector was first mooted by George Walden, the former minister who is resigning his parliamentary seat at the next election because of his disillusionment with present-day politics.

Mr Major said he wanted Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment to hold discussions with teachers on the question of disciplining disruptive pupils.

"There are discipline problems in some schools and I believe the head teachers and teachers deserve our support, and we would like to examine with them what we can do to offer them more support," he said .

He also wants schools to set local targets for the standards they wish to reach, simpler and more effective school reports, more teaching of specific subjects in primary schools and plans to speed the closure of poor schools.

"If we are serious about improving standards, as we are, then we have also got to look at how to make it easier to close poor schools," the Prime Minister said.

Mr Major has put no timescale on his plans, but he made clear the importance he places on education, which has now become a priority issue for all three main political parties as the next election looms.

He also makes no secret of his view that the election campaign has effectively begun, disclosing that the Cabinet is to have a full day session at Chequers next month to consider campaigning and policy strategy up the election and beyond. That will be accompanied by a charm offensive in the constituencies, bringing him and other ministers face-to-face with the public.

Mr Major eschewed launching a full-scale attack on his political opponents, but the interview covers territory that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is also bidding to occupy.

The Prime Minister also spoke of pursuing more ideas on "lifetime learning", the need to bring about a "national mood change" and the best qualified workforce in Europe - all objectives articulated by Mr Blair as he prepares for the election campaign.

Extending a conciliatory olive branch to John Redwood, his failed leadership challenger, Mr Major also promised that the Treasury would look carefully at Mr Redwood's claim to have identified pounds 5bn of waste in public spending.

And reaffirming his determination to build on the Northern Ireland peace process, he hinted that further measures to return the province to normal life would be outlined by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a key speech he is scheduled to make tomorrow.