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Right's double-whammy

The Tory Right may be winning the battle for a radical education manifesto, with school vouchers firmly on the political agenda, reports Geraldine Hackett.

The new agenda on the Conservative right is to aim for the double-whammy in education - the return of grammar schools, coupled with vouchers that parents can spend at the school of their choice.

The degree to which the Right is influencing policy is likely to emerge with the publication in June of the White Paper on education. Interviewed for the BBC's On the Record programme, Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, suggested that the result of proposals in the paper might well fulfill the Prime Minister's ambition of having a grammar school in every town.

She declined to give any hint of what may be in store, however, other than saying schools may be given the freedom to select as many as 50 or 100 per cent of their pupils.

The plan being put forward by the Right is for the introduction of a social market that would encourage the creation of new schools - the new institutions would in the main be grant-maintained grammars.

For the scheme to work, a voucher system has to be put in place. The shift towards funding schools according to pupil numbers has brought the practical reality of vouchers closer. In addition, new Treasury accounting rules allow the capital cost per pupil, as well as running costs, to be taken into the reckoning.

According to the advocates of vouchers, the fact that parents have real spending power would lead to the creation of new schools. Independent promoters, they say, would set up what parents want. Many of those schools, the Right believes, would be grammars.

The major obstacle to this grand design is that until now the Treasury has resisted public money going into schools without there being evidence that extra places are required for the pupils in the area. The right-wing is arguing that the "basic need" requirement has to be abolished if there is to be any hope of breaking away from what its members consider to be the uniformity of comprehensive education.

The running costs of new schools could be met from the vouchers and the private finance initiative increases the likelihood of large companies being willing to put up the capital.

It is clear from Mrs Shephard's BBC interview that she has not been carried away with the Right's vision of a new order in education. It was her view, she said, that the system should offer diversity - that it allows different kinds of schools to offer different sorts of education to different kinds of children. Selective schools, she added, play an important part in that overall diversity.

The social market philosophers accept there is an element of uncertainty about their proposals. Independent promoters of new schools might not want to be reliant on public funds.

There is also an argument that parents should be allowed to spend their vouchers in existing independent schools.

Their best card is that any scheme that results in the return of grammar schools, without the unwanted appearance of schools designated secondary moderns, could be popular in the months before a general election.

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