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Blair blasts class-ridden institutions

Geraldine Hackett reports on the Labour party's efforts to get back on top of the education agenda, while Soraya Madell finds an improbable Harriet Harman supporter in Tottenham's black MP Bernie Grant.

Tony Blair this week attempted to regain the initiative on education by insisting comprehensive schools could adopt measures to accelerate the progress of brighter students.

The Labour leader praised schools that allowed pupils to move ahead of their year group in line with particular abilities or interests. And in what was perhaps the first foreshadowing of a financial commitment, he also promised Labour would look at ways it could organise and fund a national network of pre-school and after-school homework centres around the country.

The opportunity to set out what Mr Blair considers the essential differences between Labour and the Conservatives was provided by his lecture in the Faith in the City series run by the churches. He told the audience in Southwark Cathedral that Labour believes the advancement of individuals is dependent upon people working together in a community.

Labour, he said, was committed to a society in which people advance through merit and not birth. "The blunt truth is that Britain is still, after all these years, a place where class counts, where the best do not always come through, and whose institutions reinforce a sense of us as a country living in our past not learning from it."

In terms of education, Mr Blair suggested it was time to transcend old structures. Labour was refusing to go back to the 11-plus, but also refusing to make do with uniformity.

Instead, Mr Blair saw much to commend in a system that allowed accelerated learning in any subject in which a pupil shows talent.

"This does not mean 12-year-olds suddenly becoming sixth-formers, but it does mean bright children being stretched instead of being bored in subjects where they have particular aptitude,"he said.

Mr Blair insisted it was important to break down the rigidity in the system that assumes all pupils learn at the same speed in different subjects. The Labour leader also urged an expansion of homework centres for children who lack facilities to work at home.

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