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Labour's excellence doubted

Labour's education policies are "divisive" and its espousal of specialist schools will inevitably entail a return to selection, according to the country's chief lobby group for comprehensive education, writes Josephine Gardiner.

In a formal and remarkably critical response last week to Labour's policy document, Excellence for Everyone, published last December, the Campaign for State Education expresses "very strong reservations" about Labour's specialist schools policy.

Encouraging schools to "play to their strengths" will "lead inevitably to a concentration of resources and teaching to support a specialism . . . problems over admission will result as some schools will be seen as better than others specialising in other subjects. This will lead to selection."

CASE also complains that the policy would rush pupils into specialisation at the tender age of 11 just as a consensus is emerging that education is too specialised at 16-plus.

In addition, says CASE, the focus on specialist schools as a "panacea" could distract attention from the mounting evidence that problems begin many years earlier. Labour would therefore be better advised to concentrate on raising achievement in primary schools and providing universal nursery education.

Labour has been seduced, the response suggests, by the apparent popularity of technology status among schools but, in reality, it is mostly attracted to specialist status "because it offers a chance of more money".

Labour should also focus more generally on improving life in the inner cities in order to improve the schools: "Why should it be assumed that magnet schools and specialist schools are the answer to the problems in deprived areas? Do inner-city children have a particular attraction to magnets which rural and suburban children do not?" But Labour says that CASE has missed the point. Specialist schools could improve education in the inner city because they would attract a wider social mix of pupils, thus avoiding what might be termed the Harriet Harman syndrome - in which middle-class parents, particularly in inner London, shun the local comprehensives at all costs.

Labour envisages that specialist schools would share expertise and facilities with neighbouring schools and other magnets. A spokesman for shadow education secretary David Blunkett said that Labour did not believe that specialism implied selection; instead, parents would tend to choose the school that suited their child's aptitudes.

"We don't see the inevitability or otherwise of selection as the issue - the issue is how to use the strengths of particular schools and get them to work with other schools," he said.

This was already happening in Sheffield, he said, where a group of schools had jointly decided which of them was to apply for technology status, having agreed that all would share the benefits.

Pupils would have to follow the national curriculum in specialist schools, so alarm about early specialisation is unjustified, he said.

CASE's statement also questions Mr Blunkett's assertion that the money recouped from the disbanding of the Assisted Places Scheme would be enough to cut class sizes to 30 at key stage 1. Unless strict limits are set, along Scottish lines, it argues, "the money will be spent in other ways".

The group opposes home-school contracts on the grounds that they patronise parents: "Labour seems to be adopting the current approach that parents are either rabid consumers interested only in making choices, or disaffected and feckless, needing to be brought to heel with contracts". Homework clubs are welcomed, but homework quotas set "by government decree" are not.

Reducing the size of inner-city comprehensives, although an expensive option, would in the long term be a more efficient way to raise standards in deprived areas, CASE suggests. "Such a move might encourage parents in these areas to use their local school if it seems to be on a more human scale."

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