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Grammar Schools Could Return - But Only In Wales, Say Conservatives

07/08/2013 11:29 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 13:13 BST
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Embargoed to 0001 Friday February 22 File photo dated 02/03/12 of a maths exam in progress as England's brightest youngsters are two years behind the best pupils in nations such as Hong Kong and Taiwan in maths by the time they are 16, new research shows.

The Conservative Party has promised to bring back controversial grammar schools - but only in Wales, it has been revealed.

Despite David Cameron's refusal to allow new grammar schools to be opened, Angela Burns, the Conservative education spokesperson in the Welsh Assembly, has promised academic selection in schools.

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"I think it is time that we revisited the successful elements of grammar schools and sought apply it to a modern Welsh system," Burns told the Daily Telegraph.

Burns said if her party was voted into power, it would create a system where children are divided into academic or vocation schooling when they are 14.

And, judging from the responses on Twitter, there's a mixed reaction about the proposal.

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Education has long been a thorny issue in Wales.

It is one of 20 subject areas that have been devolved to the Assembly.

Welsh Labour, who have always been in power in Cardiff Bay, have long faced criticism from rivals for allowing Welsh pupils to lag behind their English counterparts.

Earlier this year, schools watchdog Estyn said not enough was being done to get the most out of the best pupils.

In its annual report, it also expressed concern about the reading, writing and numeracy levels.

Burns said: "Standards are down across the board. Teachers are fraught and demoralised, the red tape is encyclopaedic, we lose too many young people in the system, the best and brightest are not encouraged and those from chaotic or deprived homes are still unable to break free of the bonds that tie them.

"We need to be courageous and humble.....we should look to our past and not be afraid to revisit success and learn for the future."

Despite calling for the return of grammar schools Welsh Tories are not calling for the return of the 11-plus exam and believe pupils should be separated by ability at 14 into two streams - academic and vocational.

However, in order for the plans to become a reality the Welsh Conservatives would have to make up a lot of ground.

The party currently has 14 Senedd seats - less than half of Labour's 30.

And last week in the Ynys Mon by-election, the Tories finished in fourth place - finishing well behind Ukip.

But while their grammar school plan may remain a drawing board idea for the meantime, it is likely to boost support among the party faithful.

Cameron has antagonised many traditional Tories by opposing grammar schools - where there are now only 164 left in England.

He said his party's education policy should instead focus on creating academies and free schools.

Wales' education minister, Huw Lewis, was quick to lambast Burns after her grammar schools comments came to light.

Writing on Twitter, he said: "I thought someone was pulling my leg when I was told about Welsh Tory idea of re-introducing grammar schools #backtothefuture".

The Merthyr Tydfil AM also said the Labour-run Welsh government was "committed to excellent schools for all not encouraging a parental scramble for advantage".

Also sticking the boot in was the Welsh Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Aled Roberts AM.

He said: "Creating more grammar schools would merely extend the attainment gap that already exists between pupils from affluent and less affluent backgrounds.

"It would be interesting to know how the Tories would afford this restructure, bearing in mind that at the last election they wanted to slash the education budget by 20%.

"Not so long ago the Welsh Tories called for people to be charged to use the NHS if they injure themselves doing 'irresponsible' activities, such as 'skiing or rock-climbing'.

"It's all very well grabbing a quick headline, but to be taken seriously they really must start thinking their policies through.

"There are real practical difficulties with this proposal, particularly in rural areas.

"That there is no difficulty in pupils of all abilities achieving their potential under the comprehensive system as long as the proper processes are in place to keep standards high."