Minister bows to grammar school zeal

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Education Correspondent

All schools could be offered the chance to become fully selective in a White Paper to be published in June, the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, said yesterday.

In an apparent climbdown in the face of pressure from the Prime Minister, Mrs Shephard said that the move could mean a new grammar school in every town. John Major wants to distinguish clearly between the Conservatives' education policy and Labour's, and his policy unit is keen to see the setting up of new, privately backed grammar schools.

Mrs Shephard denied rumours that there had been any rift between herself and Mr Major, but leaders of the teachers' unions claimed she had clearly been "whipped into line".

In a speech at the Institute of Education in London yesterday, Mrs Shephard promised a range of options aimed at increasing the proportion of pupils which each school could select.

The Government has already raised the limit from 10 per cent to 15 per cent, but speaking after yesterday's lecture Mrs Shephard said a 100 per cent limit was a possibility. In a consultation on the 15 per cent limit, only 15 out of 1,500 organisations consulted said that they were in favour.

Ruling out a return to the old 11-plus system of selection, she said she had no particular figure in mind for the number of new grammar schools she wanted to see. "We don't want to impose uniformity. We want schools to build on their own strengths. We do want to see more diversity and more selection if that's what parents and schools want," she said.

She and the Prime Minister were completely in agreement on the matter, she added, referring to newspaper speculation about a split. "There is no rift between us. It really has been a ludicrous period in our lives," she said.

This summer's White Paper will propose an expansion of local management, which already gives schools control of between 85 per cent and 95 per cent of their budgets. It will also look at ways of encouraging more schools to opt out.

However, some of the proposals in the paper, including those on giving all schools the chance to move to full academic selection, would have to be manifesto pledges. There would be no time before the election to pass the legislation needed for extra selection in local authority schools, Mrs Shephard said.

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that the Secretary of State had been forced by Downing Street to toe the line. "If the Government is trying to ensure that there is clear blue water between it and the Labour Party, I don't believe the vast majority of parents will cast their vote on the basis of which party is prepared to support a greater amount of selection," he said.