Blair faces education storm

15 Feb 01
The government tried to face down a barrage of criticism this week over its plans to 'transform' the secondary school system.

16 February 2001

Its green paper, Building on Success, set out a five-year plan which aims to develop a diverse education system. But Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education Secretary David Blunkett were forced on the defensive after an off-the-cuff comment by the prime minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, who claimed that the plans signalled 'the end of bog-standard comprehensives'.

The comment triggered waves of criticism from educationalists and, unsurprisingly, the teaching unions.

The green paper said the government would give nearly half of all secondary schools specialist status in the next five years, with these schools able to select 10% of their pupils. There will be 1,000 beacon schools by the end of September, and plans for a new academy for talented and gifted youth.

However, Blair and Blunkett's presentations were overshadowed by the comment from Campbell and triggered the anger of the teaching unions.

The leaders of the two main teaching unions have written to the prime minister complaining that the remark will make it hard to attract teachers in an already stretched market.

The Local Government Association said it was time the government recognised that spin doctors do not win elections. Its education chair, Graham Lane, said the comments were 'deeply insulting and deeply inaccurate'. He criticised the green paper plans for specialist schools and said the two-tier system to be created was 'flawed'.

'The half-and-half approach is not workable. It is impossible to say that there will be equality for all when there will be a perception that one school is better than the other,' he added.

'The problem the government needs to look at is how schools are funded and how schools plan to deal with the admissions policy.'

Speaking about the increasing use and promotion of the private sector in education, Lane said: 'There is a big difference between what the private sector actually wants and what the government wants. They want to be involved in education but they do not want to manage schools and that is where the government is going wrong. The idea that anyone but a headteacher should run a school is ridiculous.'

Forced to defend the policy, a Department for Education and Employment spokesman rejected the claims that the comprehensive system was on the way out. He also rejected claims that the government was moving back to a grammar school-style selection system.


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