Shephard cool on grammar school drive

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Education Editor

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, was cautious yesterday about Downing Street policy unit proposals to allow parents to set up new grammar schools.

She said that the Government was in favour of some schools selecting pupils but refused to be drawn on proposals for parents and businesses to start grammar schools using public or private funds.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "Mrs Shephard is once again having to put John Major back on the leash and is pouring cold water on his plans."

He pointed out that John Patten, Mrs Shephard's predecessor, had floated similar plans at Mr Major's behest but they had been dropped through lack of interest.

Mrs Shephard, who was attending the Grant Maintained Schools Centre annual conference, said selection gave parents more choice and raised standards. She is examining proposals to extend selection by increasing the percentage of pupils schools can select without her permission from 10 to 15 per cent.

The Department for Education said that Mr Patten's proposals for parents, religious groups and others to set up schools, including grammar schools, were still in place. So far no new selective schools have been started.

In a speech to grant maintained school heads in Birmingham, Mrs Shephard said Labour would take away opted-out schools' freedom though Tony Blair and Harriet Harman had chosen opted-out schools for their children. Mr Blair and Ms Harman are both sending sons to the Oratory grant-maintained school in west London.

Mrs Shephard warned that Labour would restore the power of local authorities over schools "taking away all the freedoms for which you have fought: these freedoms which are producing such excellent results - the very characteristics of grant-maintained schools apparently so prized by Mr Blair and Ms Harman - but not by Mr Blunkett, Labour's shadow education secretary. Mr Blunkett is even now busy fighting the attempt by a primary school in his constituency to go grant maintained."

She said Labour plans would mean a reduction in freedom for some local authority schools who would find a higher proportion of their budgets kept back by councils. All schools would have to negotiate their admissions policies with local authorities - an unprecedented intrusion into the freedom of church schools.