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City hammers home need for cash on the nail

In Bristol some doubt that new Labour will deliver schools from their funding fix. Bristol is something of a new Labour heartland - the city's new unitary authority has enthusiastically joined the party's drive to raise standards.

Education spokesman David Blunkett has visited and praised city schools and the Labour-controlled authority is following in the footsteps of Birmingham which is introducing a raft of new Labour policies, from school targets to baseline assessment.

Local party members believe improving city schools will be a crucial issue on the doorstep. But while the city council's leadership is enthusiastically implementing many Labour policies, there is disquiet among some activists that a Blair government may not put its money where its mouth is.

There are concerns over selection, child benefit and new Labour's attitude towards teachers and schools. And in a city faced with making large-scale cuts one issue is uppermost - funding.

Some 58 schools in Bristol are faced with possible merger or closure under plans to remove surplus places and help save the council Pounds 6.2 million over three years.

Councillors complain many of their budget problems stem from tight spending limits handed down by central Government. They want greater openness about the way Standard Spending Assessments, which set the limits, are calculated.

John Ashton, Labour chairman of the education committee, backs David Blunkett's policies, and is confident a Labour government would bring some relief to the city's cash difficulties.

He said: "We have told David Blunkett about the problem; of course we have told Tory ministers too. People ask me why Bristol is funded so badly but I don't know" He believes Labour will help fund specific activities like city nurseries. But the problem for Mr Blair is that many within the party are uneasy over the lack of concrete commitments on funding, and are uncertain the leadership will deliver.

Doug Naysmith, Labour prospective parliamentary candidate in Bristol North West, will be fighting a Conservative majority of just 45 at the next election.

He said: "We believe the SSA has worked out as unfair for Bristol. We want to get proper regard for the cost of living in this city, which has implications for education.

"What Bristol people will be doing is putting pressure on the Government to recognise that and impress that on an incoming Labour government."

Elsewhere, Rachel Hudson is worried because her local school, Bannerman Road Primary in the Easton area of the city, may be closed under the council's review.

She said: "I really don't think the money's there, although I think Labour would give a high priority to education."

Others question whether Mr Blair has the commitment to raise taxes for schools. Brian Drummond is a school governor who is also secretary of the Bristol branch of Fight Against Cuts in Education. He worries that Labour will not improve things for cash-strapped authorities. "It's unbelievable what's happening in Bristol," he said Teacher Jim McKerron is another party member who shares those concerns, and worries that a Labour government may not deliver. "There's no clear promise of extra funds; there are hints, but it's not clear. There is a hope they will get into office with very few commitments and deliver more than they promised.

"But my worry is we have a party which has moved to the centre and the Right. The record of Labour governments shows they move further to the Right in office so what are we going to end up with?" That underlying concern has been fuelled by episodes like shadow social security minister Harriet Harman's choice of a grant-maintained grammar school for one of her sons.

The Bristol South party put down a conference motion strongly supporting the elimination of selection - and there is continuing disquiet about the Harman affair.

"The Hariet Harman debacle was significant," said Brian Drummond, "It really produced a lot of bad feeling, and within the party there's still oppostion to selection."

And John Ashton reflected the unhappiness among Labour supporters. "Party animals have long memories. I know there was considerable irritation among Labour activists in Bristol."

There is concern over shadow chancellor Gordon Brown's plans to scrap child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds, with activists anxious to secure an effective system of encouraging teenagers to stay on in education.

But grassroots worries go deeper - activists are concerned about new Labour's attitude towards teachers and their schools.

"Teachers are rather disillusioned with the Blair Labour party," said Jim McKerron. "Many would look to Labour for a change, more funding and more recognition of the value of the work teachers do. But David Blunkett and Tony Blair do seem to be picking up the Government's references about rooting out inadequate teachers."

"For years the Government has been calling teachers' work into question and attacking 'trendy' methods," said another local party member. "Labour has been picking up support among teachers, but now all of a sudden Labour has been echoing the same themes and driving teachers into the arms of the Liberal Democrats."

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