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Ministers to hold the key

"In spite of more than 50 years of universal secondary education and 30 years of comprehensive education, the pattern of excellence at the top and chronic underperformance at the bottom persists."

These are not Estelle Morris's words to the Social Market Foundation this week, but her predecessor David Blunkett's thoughts, expressed to the same think-tank, as far back as February, 1996.

The occasion then was a controversial overhaul of Labour's thinking on comprehensives. The fact that so little has changed in the intervening six years provides some idea of how desperate the Government now is for change.

The new structure, a hierarchy or "ladder" of secondary schools, appears to be an attempt by ministers to take hold of a system which, they fear, has not been delivering results fast enough.

The proportion of pupils leaving school with five or more good GCSEs, the Government's own benchmark for success, increased by only 5 percentage points, to 50 per cent, from 1997 to 2001.

Despite ministers' stated decentralising intentions, the new structure hands the Government the key role in deciding where the schools are in the new hierarchy.

This will give them, they hope, the means to lever up standards, partly by offering financial support not just to specialist schools, but to those at the bottom of the pile.

But will it work? The key, as ever, will be resources. The timing of Ms Morris's speech, two weeks before a spending review will set out the Government's plan to give public services more cash in return for reform, is surely no coincidence.

Ms Morris herself hinted that the review will offer more support to struggling schools to improve.

It needs to. Otherwise it will be hard to overlook the claims of those who argue that this new structure will serve only to exacerbate the current tendency to concentrate problems in particular schools.

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