The first state school specialising in foreign languages could be operating from next summer, as a result of plans announced in this week's Budget.
Details of how schools can apply to join the initiative will not be available until the New Year, but the first specialist language school looks likely to be Dartford Grammar, a selective boys' school in Kent, where plans are already far advanced.
Dartford has been waiting anxiously for a Government announcement since former Education Secretary John Patten said earlier this year that the scheme which allowed grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools to specialise in technology would be extended to cover sports and languages.
Changes announced by Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, following the Chancellor's Budget statement on Tuesday, mean local authority schools can now also apply to become specialist schools, ending much of the controversy previously attached to the scheme. The move has been welcomed by headteachers and education authority leaders.
It is the only major expansion in the schools budget, with funding rising from Pounds 15 million next year to Pounds 25m in 199798. The money would fund around 235 specialist schools over the next four years, most of them technology, maths and science-based. Schools wishing to specialise in languages will also now be eligible, but plans to extend the scheme to "sports" schools were unexpectedly withheld this week.
Tony Smith, head of Dartford Grammar, said he was "extremely pleased" by the news on language schools. "I would expect to put in a bid quite quickly. We've been talking to some potential sponsors but until now there has been some uncertainty about when it was going to start. We will now go back and talk again."
The GM school wants to build on its strong modern languages reputation and links with Europe. It is currently twinned with schools in seven countries and sends pupils on work experience to four.
Mr Smith said Dartford wanted to make greater use of information technology, probably with a multi-media language lab which all pupils would use. There were plans to tighten links between business studies and language lessons, possibly with a purpose-built centre.
News that council-run schools are now eligible for the scheme - which brings Pounds 100,000 Government money if they can match that sum through private sponsorship and meet certain performance targets - was widely welcomed.
Mr Patten's proviso that only GM and aided schools were eligible for his scheme, announced just over a year ago, was one of the most controversial aspects of the policy. Mrs Shephard's reversal is being seen as a significant U-turn. Local Schools Information, the anti-GM pressure group, says this removed one of the few remaining reasons for schools to consider opting out.
Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the City Technology Colleges Trust which advises the specialist schools, welcomed the change, which he predicted would increase competition to become specialist schools. He hoped for one in every education authority.
He added: "I am confident large firms will be much more inclined to back the initiative. Rolls-Royce is backing two GM schools in Derby but has expressed concern that the initiative was only open to GM and voluntary-aided schools. This will help on the funding side."
Chris Tipple, president of the Society of Education Officers, said Mrs Shephard had been pressed on the unfairness of the scheme at a meeting last week. "The scheme was grossly unfair. This is an improvement, but there are still problems." Parents in rural counties would still have no access to specialist schools for their children, and rural schools or those in depressed areas would find it difficult to obtain business sponsorship.
Russ Clarke, assistant general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, suspected it would be a popular scheme. "Frankly, if there's money going schools are likely to apply for it, particularly in expensive areas such as technology."