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Blairs put Labour in opt-out spotlight

The Labour party's attempt to develop its policy on grant-maintained schools has been disrupted by the public row over the choice of school for ten-year-old Euan Blair, the son of Labour's leader.

David Blunkett, the leader of the education team, has been taking soundings from council and GM schools before attempting to draft a detailed policy on the way a Labour government might construct a local framework for all schools.

The choice by the Blairs of the London Oratory, a GM Catholic boys' school eight miles from their home, increases pressure on the party to produce a policy that does not seem to limit parental choice to the neighbourhood comprehensive.

Sources within the party insisted this week that reports that GM schools would survive under a future Labour government were untrue. The policy remained that GM status would be abolished. Talks had taken place with independent schools about their attitude to opting into the state system. A number of independents, many of them former direct-grammar schools, would run into financial difficulties as a result of Labour's commitment to abolish the assisted places scheme.

Labour has also to develop policy on church schools. The Catholic bishops have expressed concern at the proposal in the party's "white paper" that Catholic GM schools be given the status of voluntary-controlled schools. The churches would prefer to see their influence restored through voluntary-aided status.

The Blairs have yet to be told whether their son is to get a place at the Oratory, run by a Catholic order. The head, John McIntosh dismissed newspaper reports that acceptance was a formality. No applicant from the St Joan of Arc, Euan Blair's primary school, got a place at the Oratory last year. The school already educates the son of Harriet Harman, the party's spokesperson on employment.

Labour has responded to criticism of the Blairs by pointing out that John Major and other members of the Cabinet send their children to independent schools.

The arrival of Gillian Shephard as Education Secretary appeared to signal a dampening down of the Government's enthusiasm for GM schools. She told the Association of Heads of Grant-maintained Schools last week that there are no plans to impose GM status on all schools.

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