The government's expansion of its specialist schools programme is to be accelerated, the new education secretary, Charles Clarke, said yesterday, as he admitted there was "a lack of coherence" in its schools reform programme.

He also pledged to "let teachers teach" by slashing red tape in schools and through a crackdown on poor behaviour and lack of discipline.

In his first public speech since being appointed secretary of state last Thursday in the reshuffle triggered by the sudden resignation of Estelle Morris, Mr Clarke acknowledged that "rapid action" was needed to recruit sufficient markers to avoid another exam disaster next year. Headteachers were chosen to listen to Mr Clarke's speech, in which he stressed primary and secondary school reform was his biggest single challenge.

Yesterday he said he would speed up the government's specialist schools programme, which to date has seen almost 1,000 comprehensives given extra cash to develop expertise in areas such as technology, sport and the arts.

Headteachers have complained of the difficulties of raising the £50,000 sponsorship required to support their bids, and of the problems of competing for limited cash from local sources with neighbouring schools. Mr Clarke said he would look at this, adding he did not want there to be any barriers to the creation of more specialist schools. But he stressed that stumping up the cash was an important part of building links between schools and their communities.

Mr Clarke said the government was committed to helping heads and teachers be as effective and as professional as possible in their jobs. That meant cutting red tape, and also reducing the amount of documentation received from agencies such as Ofsted and the qualifications and curriculum authority, as well as local education authorities.

The government had been accused of "initiative-itis", he said: "Perhaps we did have too interventionist an approach but I would defend what we were trying to do."

Mr Clarke signalled a crackdown on bad behaviour, originally due to have been launched by his predecessor this week, but expected in the next few weeks.

He said he also recognised the need to shore up confidence in the public exam system and to deal with the need to get sufficient numbers of examiners and markers: "I will await Mike Tomlinson's second report, which is due in a few weeks, with great interest and - with the profession - I will take the steps necessary to implement his recommendations, for example on recruit ing examiners rapidly and effectively."

Headteachers broadly welcomed Mr Clark's speech, although some complained that youngsters were being "tested to death" and that they were spending more money every year on exams than on teaching and learning.

· Teacher unions are facing their first confrontation with Mr Clarke after yesterday voting to strike over cost of living allowances.

Members of the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers will stage a one-day stoppage on November 26 in support of their campaign that London allowances should be increased by at least a third. Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers - who are also being balloted on the issue - could join the action.

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