The death of dullness promised in green paper
Written by Michael Barber, the standards guru south of the border, and Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair's education adviser, the Green Paper wants every school to develop a distinctive ethos and to tailor its teaching to pupils' individual needs.
In the future secondaries would no longer be "uniform in character" but would each have a "distinctive mission, ethos and purpose", Mr Blair said. Schools would be able to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils.
There is to be a patchwork of more specialist schools, beacon schools, church schools, city academies and schools sponsored by business, faith or voluntary groups. A new national centre for gifted children will be set up to co-ordinate programmes and summer schools for talented youngsters.
Critics have warned that this effectively signals the death of the comprehensive and the start of a potentially divisive two-tier system.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, and David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, have written to Mr Blair to protest at the anti-comprehensive spin put on the Green Paper's launch.
John Bangs, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The accusation of dull uniformity of comprehensives is simply a caricature."
Nigel de Gruchy, of the NASUWT, said the government was asking a legitimate question about the future of comprehensives but said the system should not be changed "by the back door and bribery" of the specialist school system.
Nearly half of all secondary schools in England - 1,500 - will become specialist colleges within five years, under Mr Blair's plans. By 2006, nearly every secondary is to be either a specialist college or twinned with one. Specialisms are described as engineering, science, and business and enterprise.
The churches, successful schools, and voluntary and private sector organisations are also to be brought in to manage and run schools in difficulties, under five or seven year performance-related conracts.
But critics claim the evidence for the success of church schools is mixed, while businesses have thus far been reluctant to get involved in the hands-on management of schools despite successive governments' attempts to woo them into education. Nonetheless Mr Blair, whose sons attend the Roman Catholic London Oratory, praised the "sense of mission" and academic success of church schools.
TONY BLAIR 'NOW TO THE RIGHT OF TORIES'
There are unlikely to be any implications for Scotland from the education moves in England, according to Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University. "The centre of gravity of the debate about education is totally different in Scotland," he said.
"There has never been any hint that politicians in Scotland are other than in favour of comprehensive schools. The Prime Minister is now to the right of the Scottish Tories," he said Professor Paterson said the cumulative effect of the comprehensive system in Scotland can be seen from the fact that a half of school-leavers enter higher education, compared to a third in England.
The work of Linda Croxford of Edinburgh University had shown there was less social segregation between schools in Scotland, he said, so schools were more likely to be genuinelycommunity-based despite the years of parental choice.
Ms Croxford had also pointed to much narrower differentials in terms of pupil attainment in Scotland compared with England, so it mattered less which school youngsters attended.
Although there is no hint of a return to selection in Scotland, the Scottish Executive has encouraged moves away from the "monolithic comprehensive". Ministers want to see more curricular experimentation.
There is also a pound;14 million national programme of specialist "centres of excellence" for talented pupils to inject diversity into the system. They are the music schools at Broughton High in Edinburgh, Douglas Academy in East Dunbartonshire and Dyce Academy in Aberdeen, the centre for traditional Scottish music at Plockton High in the west Highlands, the dance school at Knightswood Secondary in Glasgow, the sports school at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, the community languages centre at Shawlands Academy in Glasgow, and the modernlanguages network involving schools in East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and Argyll councils.