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Wednesday, 25 July, 2001, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
In England, children must continue in full-time education until they are 16 - though now a majority stay on after that.
The "modernisation of the comprehensive system" has been one of the key themes of the government's campaign to raise standards in education.
In state-sector secondary schools there has been increasing diversification, with the emergence of "beacon schools", "specialist schools" and the setting up of action zones in areas of educational underachievement.
To qualify, they must raise £50,000 in sponsorship, prepare four-year plans with targets in teaching and learning in the specialist subject area, and involve other schools and the wider community.
New specialisms added to the initiative in 2001 were business and enterprise, science, and engineering.
The government intends that almost half of all secondary schools should specialise by 2006.
There has been particular attention paid to under-performing schools, with groups of primary and secondary schools being brought together with business and community partners in education action zones. These are given extra funding and support to pioneer ways of making improvements.
Schools which are seen to be beyond recovery have been closed and given a "fresh start", in which a new institution is opened on the site of the failing school - usually with a new name, headteacher and staff.
The new emphasis is on raising standards for 11 to 14 year olds, with the literacy and numeracy strategies that have been used in primary schools being extended to the lower secondary years.
The government's targets are that, by 2004, 75% of 14 year olds will be expected to reach Level 5 - the level expected for their age - in English, maths, and information and communication technology (ICT). The figure for science is 70%.
By 2007, ministers want to see 85% of pupils achieving Level 5 in English, maths and ICT, and 80% in science.
A large majority of the three million secondary school pupils in England attend non-selective comprehensives, but there are a number of ongoing disputes concerning selection.
There are 164 grammar schools in England, taking pupils who have passed an 11-plus exam. But in response to calls for the abolition of these remaining grammars, the government introduced regulations for local ballots of parents that will determine whether schools remain selective.
So far there has been only one ballot, early in 2000 - when parents in Ripon voted to keep their grammar school.
A ballot can be triggered only when there are enough names of parents gathered in a petition, with the threshold number calculated by a complicated (and disputed) formula laid down by the government.
Schools that have "partial selection" - where a proportion of pupils are admitted on the grounds of ability - have also been the subject of disputes. These are settled by the school admissions watchdog - the Office of the Schools Adjudicator - which itself has been the subject of legal challenges.
For mainstream state secondary schools a revised framework was introduced in September 1999. In a reform that removed the "opted-out" grant-maintained sector, the government introduced four new categories of school.
Foundation schools - exercising a greater degree of independence, the governing body is the 'employer' and sets admissions policies.
Voluntary-aided schools - such as church schools, in which the governing body sets admissions policies and in which the charitable foundation which 'owns' the school makes a financial contribution to its running.
Voluntary-controlled schools - these are owned by charitable foundations, but the local authority employs staff and sets admissions policies.
They are being established with "substantial" capital investment from business or voluntary, religious or private foundations. The state pays the running costs.
They have the right to operate their own curriculum, and freedom to "reinvent" the school day and pay their teachers more.
The government said they would be distinguishable from the Conservatives' 15 "city technology colleges" - though created under the same legislation - by a wider range of sponsors.
In addition to state schools, there are around 790 fee-paying independent secondary schools, which are not required to follow the national curriculum, but which must register with the Department for Education and which are subject to inspections for the purposes of registration.
Pupils in state and independent schools are required to stay at school until the age of 16 - with the starting age of secondary school usually at the age of 11.
Where local authorities operate a "middle school" system, pupils begin secondary school at the age of 12 or 13.
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