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The battle for the middle class

The latest shift in Labour's education policy probably has much to do with the view from the Blair office that the middle class, particularly in the more prosperous South-east, has to be won over, writes Geraldine Hackett.

The prevailing orthodoxy from those close to the Labour leadership is that middle-class professionals will not accept that they have to send their children to the local comprehensive and will opt for independent schools if they are not offered greater choice.

Any attempt to abandon the party's commitment to comprehensives would create such internal dissent that the strategists have gone instead for specialist schools.

In The Blair Revolution, the blueprint for a Labour government published this week, Peter Mandelson (one of Mr Blair's closest advisers) and Roger Liddle advocate giving schools the maximum freedom to develop their own ethos and identity. In similar vein to David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, they suggest schools might specialise in science or music.

What was striking about Mr Blunkett's contribution to the Social Market Foundation debate was his accusation that teachers' adherence to mixed-ability teaching had given comprehensives a bad name. That theme is contained in The Blair Revolution, which has been with the publishers for months. In the section on raising standards, it states: "Where there are ideological presumptions in favour of mixed-ability teaching these should be abandoned in favour of what achieves the best results in that school."

According to Mr Mandelson and Mr Liddle, Labour has to be seen to be in favour of greater choice and diversity, rather than defending the comprehensive, which is perceived as being drab and uniform.

The problem for the policy-makers is how to convince parents that specialist schools are not a covert form of selection. Labour has yet to spell out the admission arrangements.

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