As an initial target, at least 80 per cent of Britain's young people should be able to achieve the equivalent of grades A to C in GCSE core subjects, Mr Blair said when he launched his first policy document as Labour leader.
However, his strong words on high achievement and the rooting out of poor teachers contrasted with an absence of specifics on key issues such as 'broadening' A-levels and the future of grant-maintained and grammar schools.
Mr Blair revealed his own close personal identification with 'high standards for all children and not a privileged few', while conceding that not everything the Tories had done was wrong. But, under Labour, information for parents would go beyond 'crude' exam result tables, while a general teaching council would ensure teachers upheld the highest standards.
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, attacked Mr Blair for his 'warm and soothing rhetoric' and the document as a 'mouse' and a 'fudge' that would dilute standards and reduce choice. Labour appeared to be planning to return to local authority control approaching one-fifth of the school population being educated in grant- maintained schools, she said.
But yesterday's document shrinks from spelling that out, saying: 'Labour will abolish the Funding Agency for Schools, and place all schools within the local democratic framework. We will . . . ensure that the funding of every school is equitable and based on educational need, not on party political dogma.'
Appealing to grant-maintained schools to consult with Labour, Mr Blair insisted that all schools in the state sector would enjoy maximum independence in the way they ran their affairs.
Labour's plans for advanced education are couched in similarly opaque terms. The paper says the 'over-specialised', narrow A-level will be replaced and a new General Certificate of Further Education created. The intention appears to be that A-levels will continue but eventually subsumed into the new, broader exam.
While Mr Blair is personally opposed to grammar schools, neither he nor the document made any specific commitment to banning selection at 11. It would be 'something we want to discourage', he said. There is a clear commitment, however, to scrapping the Assisted Places Scheme.
Promising wide consultation on the proposal for 'home/school contracts', Mr Blair said: 'Parents have a right to a decent school . . . but that right must be matched by responsibilities. Parents would be responsible for coming into school if their child is disruptive, co-operating to make homework an important part of the school day, and making sure their children do not play truant.'
He made no apologies for the absence of a guaranteed timescale for implementation of Labour's priority pledge to provide nursery education for every three- and four-year-old whose parents wanted it, but said the party would urgently seek 'imaginative' ways of combining public and private-sector finance.
Labour plans to extend current testing arrangements with continual assessment for each child, provoked a warning from Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, of renewed industrial action. But most teaching unions welcomed the paper.
Leading article, page 13
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