Specialists join push for selection
Ministers have, at the same time, sponsored research into new forms of test for 11-year-olds, designed to identify pupils' "aptitude" in different subjects.
Schools are already entitled to choose up to 10 per cent of their intake on grounds of aptitude or ability in six subject areas. And the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has promised that a forthcoming White Paper will propose extending the proportion still further.
The new study, commissioned from the National Foundation for Educational Research, aims to help schools to pick out a specific ability in, say, languages, instead of measuring overall intelligence.
Technology and language colleges receive Pounds 100,000 of capital funding from the Government plus an annual bonus of Pounds 100 per child. In order to qualify, schools must raise Pounds 100,000 of sponsorship off their own bat.
The number of specialist schools now stands at 181. There are 151 technology colleges (excluding the older City Technology Colleges) and 30 language colleges offering such diverse options as Japanese, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali, Bhasa Malay and Chinese.
The specialist schools were introduced in 1993 to revive the flagging CTC movement; CTCs never attracted sufficient commercial sponsorship to become widespread, and there are only 15 across the country.
Mrs Shephard described the growing number of specialist schools as a "real success story". The latest batch have attracted sponsorship from major firms such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, GEC and, controversially, British American Tobacco, which has already sponsored a CTC in Middlesbrough.
The Labour party, which has been holding discussions with the City Technology Colleges Trust, welcomed the announcement, arguing that specialist schools could promote expertise throughout a community.
The CTC Trust says that "aptitude" tests cannot be read as moves towards selection, as pupils of low overall ability can show aptitude. But specialist schools, and in particular their use of limited selection, have attracted union hostility.
"The reintroduction of selection may be Mr Major's great plan, but it is a plan that will let down the vast majority of children and young people in this country," said Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. "Pupils' abilities change. They are not written in stone at 11. "
He said the distinction between "aptitude" and overall ability was meaningless.
It is not clear how many specialist schools will choose to use the tests.
Hazel Farrow, principal of Loxford Technology College in Redbridge, north-east London, said: "It's the average child who needs these skills in languages and technology. Those who have an aptitude will get them anyway."