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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 11:51 GMT
Tories plan to keep student fees
David Cameron

The Conservative Party has announced a U-turn on student finance - now saying that it supports student tuition fees.

Previously it had promised to scrap all fees, including top-ups being introduced from this autumn in England.

On Monday, party leader David Cameron told sixth formers that if universities were to be well funded, the money had to come from somewhere.

Mr Cameron also pledged that there would be no return to the 11-plus exam or any expansion in grammar schools.

The Conservatives' new direction in education was set out by Mr Cameron on a visit to Chalvedon School and Sixth Form College in Basildon, Essex.

Grammars' full stop

Before making his first major policy statement on education since becoming leader, Mr Cameron told sixth formers he supported tuition fees - reversing the party's position at the last general election.

I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system
David Cameron, Conservative leader

"On the issue of student fees, I'll say something that's probably a bit unpopular in the room," he said.

"I'm afraid I think we're going to have to keep student fees, and I'll tell you why.

"You want to go to universities that are well-funded, [with] good tutors, good facilities and I want as many people who think they're going to benefit from university to be able to go.

"If you want those things - and as you also know we've also got to keep taxes down in this country - the money's got to come from somewhere."

"Yes, I'm afraid students are going to have to make a contribution."

From the autumn, students in English universities will face tuition fees of up to 3,000 per year - a measure only narrowly introduced by the government after a backbench rebellion of Labour MPs.

Indicating another higher education policy change, Mr Cameron said he believed there should be no limit on student numbers - a shift away from the previous policy that opposed the government's plans to increase the proportion of young people in higher education.

'Compassionate Conservative'

In a later speech to staff at the school, Mr Cameron promised a major change in the emphasis of education policy for a "modern, compassionate Conservative party" - and an emphatic rejection of academic selection.

He said that he wanted to reject the previous ideological approaches of both left and right and to "focus on what goes on in schools, rather than have endless arguments over systems and organisations".

Mr Cameron, distancing himself from Conservative sympathies for the grammar system, said: "I want to say absolutely clearly, the Conservative party that I am leading does not want to go back to the 11-plus, does not want to go back to the grammar school system."

And he dismissed the "backwards looking" arguments over admissions and selection - arguing that instead of debating school structures, the central issue was raising standards in state schools.

The mechanism for this would be to increase the use of "setting", in which pupils of different abilities would be taught in different groups within a school.

The party's education spokesperson, David Willetts, also suggested that the voucher-style "pupil passport", providing state subsidies for private schools, which had been the party's election policy, was no longer on the agenda.

'Device'

On higher education, Mr Willetts said policy detail had still to be determined, but that the party's previous opposition to an expansion of student numbers was no longer a fixed commitment.

But the Schools Minister Jacqui Smith warned that the Conservatives' promises on grammar schools should not be taken at face value.

The promises from Mr Cameron were "no more than a device to return to selection by academic ability at the age of 11 while pretending to do otherwise".

"Since the general election, David Cameron has gone out of his way to make clear his commitment to allow all schools to select by academic ability," said Ms Smith.

The leader of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott, also challenged Mr Cameron's call for the extension of setting in schools.

"Mr Cameron needs to be very careful about prescribing more setting in secondary schools.

"Teachers use their professional judgment to set pupils appropriately depending on the children in question, the subject and the circumstances. Imposed and rigid forms of setting ignore such factors."


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