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Sir Cyril aims fatal blow at old-style comprehensives

More than any other policy, the specialist school programme illustrates the tensions at the heart of Labour's approach to education.

Very much a Conservative invention, Tony Blair's decision to make the scheme his own exposes the fault lines between new Labour and the rest of the party.

Launched as technology colleges in 1993, specialist schools were an attempt to rescue the idea of business involvement in education following the Tories' failure to create many of the rather more expensive city technology colleges.

By the time Labour came to power, 231 schools had been awarded technology, language, arts or sport college status.

Derided by unions and Labour supporters as an elitist policy which targeted extra resources at the better-off, specialist schools were not short of enemies.

But ministers anxious to prove they could work with business were always unlikely to tell sponsors to take their cash elsewhere.

Successive education secretaries attempted to steer a third way between demands for equality and excellence. Hesitantly at first but with increasing confidence, ministers proclaimed that specialist status should be for the many rather than the few.

By 2001, there were 700 specialist schools and a target of 1,500 by 2005.

Today they make up 2,502 of around 3,100 maintained secondaries.

Supporters of specialist status point to GCSE results which have risen faster than average, although critics argue this is unsurprising for schools that have been selected as high achievers.

But the real success of Labour's policy is political rather than educational. Re-branding "comprehensive" schools as specialist has created a sense of reform in schools while opposition has evaporated, overtaken by the controversy over academies and trust schools.

The few heads who resisted, apart from those who had difficulty raising sponsors' money, caved in when it was made clear that all schools, exam results permitting, could join the club. And the expansion of specialisms: engineering; business and enterprise; special needs; vocational; science; music; maths and computing, all being added to the list made it an easier decision.

But now the Government faces the crunch: what should happen to the schools who have still not met the criteria to join the club?

Step in Sir Cyril and his solution. His idea is the latest attempt to avoid what Tony Blair has described as a "false choice" between Labour's desire for excellence and its egalitarian instincts. It is unlikely to be the last.

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