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Whitehall counts cost of Blair pledge

It would cost pound;1.2 billion to give every secondary specialist status, but officials are still working on their sums. Warwick Mansell reports

WHITEHALL officials are alarmed by the Prime Minsiter's open-ended promise to allow all state secondaries to become specialist schools - at an estimated cost of pound;1.2 billion.

Tony Blair, who had previously set a target of half the 3,550 secondaries for specialsit status, said there would be no limit. The TES has calulated that it would cost another pound;1.2 billion, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of the Government's annual funding of all of England's schools to extend the pledge to all secondaries.

Department for Education and Employment officials were scrambling to do their own sums this week after Tony Blair set out his vision in a speech to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference.

Privately, officials are concerned that the plans have not been squared with the Treasury and the money may not be forthcoming.

A more radical and apparently unscripted suggestion in the speech by Mr Blair, that he would like to see the funding of state schools match their independent counterparts, also caught civil servants on the hop. The cost of funding state schools at private-sector levels would be huge.

The Government spends up to pound;592,000 per school on its specialist schools programme. Each specialist gets a one-off start-up grant of pound;100,000, plus up to pound;123,000 a year for four years.

John Bangs, assistant secretary of the Natinal Union of Teachers, said Mr Blair was simply reacting to the negative publicity surrounding his spokesman Alistair Campbell's suggestion that the expansion of specialist schooling would spell the end of the "bog-standard comprehensive".

He said: "The Government has been knocked back by accusations that this is going to create a two-tier system. I have not seen details of how they are going to fund this further expansion, so it is very hard to determine whether it is just a positive spin being put by Mr Blair on an unpopular policy."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said he had been calling for such a pledge from Mr Blair. He added: "It's an expensive commitment, but making specialist status available to all schools makes sense and avoids the accusation of creating a two-tier system."

Meanwhile, Mr Blair's wish for "a state education system which is as good, in its facilities and investment, as the independent sector", was also questioned this week.

Alan Smithers, director of Liverpool University's centre for education and employment research, said the commitment would see the Government's schools' budget rise by 57 per cent, from pound;21 billion to pound;33 billion.

This would be equivalent to a 5p increase in the basic rate of income tax. Professor Smithers said: "As a taxpayer, I would be more than willing to pay for this kind of investment. But I do wonder how Gordon Brown would react to a promise to hand out an extra pound;12 billion."

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