PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES
Ambitious proposals aimed at creating a grammar school in every city and large town are being drawn up by the Downing Street policy unit.
The scheme envisages parents, community leaders and businesses joining to seek government money to take over existing school premises or to apply to build a school under the private finance initiative.
The initiative is seen by the policy unit as a way of taking forward the Government's commitment to standards and choice, while boosting the numbers of grant-maintained schools.
All the new schools would be grant-maintained and free of local-authority control, with the right to select pupils by ability.
The proposal envisages parents taking over an empty school and reopening it as a grammar school, and chimes with the Government's existing policy of closing failing schools.
Where parents wanted to create a new school using private finance, the school would lease the buildings from the private sector using the cash allocated by central government.
The idea is still in its infancy but could find its way into the Conservative Party manifesto for the next election.
While the proposals spring from an impatience among some strategists at the slow progress being made towards more selection, some Tory sources indicated last night that the plan might be difficult to achieve in practice.
If the scheme went ahead it would go hand-in-hand with the plans for fresh encouragement for existing grant-maintained schools to embrace selection. That could take the form, however, of specialist technical schools or schools offering strength in particular subjects. Some senior Conservatives appeared cautious yesterday, suggesting an expansion in selective education is likely to be easier to achieve by tackling the issue in relation to the existing grant-maintained schools first.
Norman Blackwell, the head of the Downing Street policy unit, is understood to be drawing up the grammar-school plans, but there were reports last night that they were likely to be given a cool reception by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, who is thought to be concerned over the prospect of creating more disruption in schools.
About 1,100 schools have applied to become grant-maintained but the numbers applying has slowed over the past 18 months. Ministers hope the introduction of more grammar schools may add fresh momentum to the movement.
Meanwhile, there were signs yesterday of a relaxation in Labour's attitude towards selection in schools.
David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, said on LWT's Dimbleby programme that it would allow grammar schools to continue if parents in their catchment areas voted to keep them.
"The issue is not abolishing something," he said. "The issue is transforming the education system."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies