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Week in perspective

This week... Church enters Section 28 fray... Maths prodigies to take early GCSEs... Working mothers under fire...

THE "forces of conservatism" kept up the pressure on Tony Blair this week, as traditionalists forced the Government on to the back-foot.

Protests from church leaders, and fear of a damaging split in the House of Commons, led to Tony Blair's announcement that MPs would be given a free vote on Section 28 - which bans the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. Church of England bishops joined Cardinal Winning, leader of Scotland's Catholics, in calling for the retention of Section 28. The debate, which has raged north of the border, came south when the committee stages of the Local Government Bill began in the Lords this week.

Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that "safeguards" were needed to protect schoolchildren. And his colleague, the Right Reverend James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, warned of "a backlash from the silent majority" in England if the clause were abolished.

However, ministers plan to proceed with its repeal. The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "He thinks it's time

for people to calm down and conduct this debate in a rational and sensible manner."

Traditionalists can claim at least partial victory in the battle over A-levels which will be made more demanding from September.

New syllabuses, which go out to schools on February 1, place more emphasis on Britain's historical and literary heritage. In some subjects the emphasis will shift away from learning skills towards acquiring knowledge.

Key changes include: a greater focus on algebra in maths; a compulsory pre 1770 text and at least one "closed book" exam in English; an more inorganic chemistry. Students will take the new exams from 2002.

Those who pass the tougher exams will not benefit from the compromise over Scottish tuition fees this week. Only Scottish and European Union students at university in Scotland will be affected by the changes which scrap up-front charges and require students to start paying back pound;2,000 when their salary reaches pound;10,000.

Education Secretary David Blunkett has responded to criticisms that bright children are not stretched in state schools by launching a pilot scheme to allow fast learners to take GCSE maths in primary schools. Initially, 500 children will be selected for teaching at a dozen advanced maths centres in England but if successful the scheme is expected to be on offer for all children of high enough ability.

Working mothers were also in the traditionalists' sights this week after a BBC Panorama programme which claimed a third of those who return to work after the birth of their first child quit within two years. Research by Heather Joshi, of London's Institute of Education, also found that children whose mothers worked in the years before they started school are likely to get fewer qualifications than their counterparts who had a parent at home. The study of children born in 1970 suggested that girls are 10 per cent less likely to progress from GCSE to A-levels if their mother worked. The figure for boys was 12 per cent. However, critics argue that the programme ignored factors such as income and parental qualifications.

David Blunkett this week included parents in the forces of conservatism - obstructing efforts to raise standards. He blamed parents' fear that children would grow up different from them.

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