Blair proposes network of homework clubs
Tony Blair, the party's leader, praised schools that allowed pupils to move ahead of their year group in line with particular abilities or interests. And in what was perhaps the first foreshadowing of a financial commitment, Mr Blair said that Labour would look at ways it could organise and fund a national network of pre-school and after-school homework centres.
The opportunity to set out what Mr Blair considers the essential differences between Labour and the Conservatives was provided by his lecture in the Faith in the City series run by the churches. He told an audience in Southwark Cathedral in London that Labour believes the advancement of individuals is dependent upon people working together in a community.
Labour was committed to a society in which advancement came through merit not birth. "The blunt truth is that Britain is still, after all these years, a place where class counts, where the best do not always come through, and whose institutions reinforce a sense of us as a country living in our past not learning from it," Mr Blair said.
In terms of education, he suggested it was time to transcend old structures. Labour was refusing to go back to the 11-plus, but also refusing to make do with uniformity. Instead, Mr Blair saw much to commend in a system that allowed accelerated learning in any subject in which a pupil shows talent.
"This does not mean 12-year-olds suddenly becoming sixth-formers, but it does mean bright children being stretched instead of being bored in subjects where they have particular aptitude," he said.
Mr Blair insisted it was important to break down the rigidity in the system that assumes all pupils learn at the same speed in different subjects. The Labour leader also urged an expansion of centres for children who lack facilities to do school work at home.
Labour's strategy in Scotland is due to be made public later this month, but Helen Liddell, the party's education spokeswoman, will be conscious of concerns about any form of fast-tracking.
The current Scottish Office administration, following an Inspectorate report about problems with able pupils in the first years of secondary, planned to introduce a level F to the 5-14 programme for those who attain level E well before S2. But opposition from schools to new demands on the curriculum and workload led Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the previous education minister, to put level F on the back-burner.
There is little research in Britain on the effectiveness of "setting" pupils on the basis of ability rather than age. David Reynolds, professor of education at Newcastle University, who has been looking at education in the Pacific Rim countries, suggests that their success may be partly accounted for by the fact that they do not attempt to teach classes spanning a wide ability range.
"If we look at countries that do accelerate children, they also hold back children until they have developed the necessary skills. In that way they reduce the range of ability being taught by a particular teacher," Professor Reynolds says.
"If you consider the range of ability among 10-year-olds and the trend to integrating children with special needs, then teachers here have to work with a complex technology of teaching. Exceptional teachers can always produce exceptional results, but if we are looking across all schools, a simple technology might be more effective."
Sally Brown, professor of education at Stirling University, also says that Britain is unusual in not advancing or keeping back pupils, but adds that there would be "great and highly emotional resistance".
Professor Brown takes issue with the notion implicit in Mr Blair's proposals that education is a ladder to be climbed. Rather than put able children onto the next step of the ladder early, she suggests that teachers should offer work that is enriching and enhancing.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, believes that there are limits to teaching classes of mixed ages. "In theory, you could have average 11-year-olds, bright seven-year-olds and slow-learning 14-year-olds all working at the same national curriculum level," Professor Wragg says.
On a more practical level, fast-tracking in the early years of secondary school is likely to occur at the stage where girls are well ahead of boys.