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Tories promise power to parents

Voucher scheme and passports unveiled in Blackpool. Jon Slater reports

Parents will be able to set up their own grammar schools under a future Conservative government, shadow education secretary Damian Green said this week.

A new voucher would give parents the right to buy the education of their choice or to band together to set up their own school, he told the Tory party conference in Blackpool.

He also pledged to protect the existing 164 grammars and confirmed the Conservative promise to abolish university tuition fees.

The Better Schools Passports policy intends to give more power to parents, increase diversity in the state system and allow private companies a greater role in providing education.

But it will be viewed with suspicion by many after the doomed attempt by the last Conservative government to introduce a voucher scheme for nursery education.

Neighbouring schools would have no right to block a new grammar school which Mr Green told The TES would be the equivalent of an "academic specialist school".

But he said schools could not be turned into secondary moderns without their consent, saying they would be expected to compete on the basis of their own specialism.

"We believe that parents know what is best for their children. Not Tony Blair, not Charles Clarke and not me," Mr Green told delegates. "Our scheme will give parents access to new schools, funded by the state but run independently, to meet the needs of those parents who cannot find the right school for their child."

He said that new schools were most likely to be set up by private-sector companies at the request of parents. Every parent would receive a "passport" worth more than pound;3,500 per child.

Special needs children would receive a voucher of higher value, but Mr Green refused to say that children from low-income families would attract more funding.

The pound;400 million scheme would initially be piloted in the inner-city areas of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool before being extended nationwide at an estimated cost of pound;2 billion.

Mr Green said the money would be found from an on-going review of education spending.

Education Secretary Charles Clarke attacked the proposals as "nothing more than a resurrection of the old assisted places scheme".

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

"There are many better ways of spending pound;400m than introducing the oft-discredited voucher system."

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