THE Government this week finally ditched its "standards not structures" mantra as it announced plans to set up a five-tier hierarchy of secondary schools.
In a speech to the Social Market Foundation think-tank in London, the Education Secretary Estelle Morris unveiled a new system in the "post-comprehensive" secondary sector, built around specialist schools.
The proposals, which were almost drowned out by the reaction to Ms Morris's admission that there were some comprehensives which she as a teacher "would not touch with a bargepole", were condemned by academics and union leaders.
Ms Morris set out proposals for a "ladder" of schools, with those at the bottom being given financial support to progress to the next "rung". Next month's spending review would give more details on funding.
At the base would be secondaries that are failing, with serious weaknesses or with very low exam grades. At the next stage would be those working towards specialist status, then specialist schools, and finally advanced specialists and beacon secondaries, which would eventually work on developing new ideas.
The Government has said it wants half of all secondaries to be specialists within three years. Ms Morris said for the first time this week that all secondaries would be given the chance within 10 years.
The proposals set out in the boldest terms the Government's plans to use specialisation as a badge of quality.
Ms Morris has rejected calls from unions for all schools to specialise in every area of the curriculum, in favour of diversity, with only a proportion of secondaries offering depth in a particular subject.
Yet, when it came to power, Labour said in a 1997 White Paper that: "We believe in diversity within one campus, with the method of teaching and the organisation of a school playing to the strengths of every child."
This week's controversial speech is only the latest in a series of attempts by Labour to sell its plans to "modernise" the comprehensive system. As far back as 1996, shadow education secretary David Blunkett provoked outrage after claiming that comprehensives too often promoted "drab uniformity". In 2000, Tony Blair called for an end to the "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive.
And last year, while launching the plans to which Ms Morris gave further detail this week, Mr Blair's spokesman Alistair Campbell earned notoriety for claiming that "the day of the bog standard comprehensive school is over".
In Opposition and in its first term, Labour argued that it would concentrate not on the structure of schooling, but on raising standards for all.
Ms Morris said this had been a strategic attempt not to get distracted by the "damaging obsession" of the Left with private and grammar schools.
In the primary sector, on which the first term had focused, there had been no need for structural reform. But Ms Morris added: "If we want to raise standards in the secondary sector, we need to look at the structure of our schools."
1 Top secondaries will become leaders of education reform.
2 Advanced specialist schools and beacon schools.
3 Specialist schools.
4 Schools working towards specialist status.
5 Failing schools, those with serious weaknesses or those where fewer than 20 per cent of pupils gain five or more A-C* GCSEs.