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Dogged pursuit of many scapegoats

Emma Burstall and Clare Dean open a two-page report on the education policy implications of the Conservatives' disastrous showing in last week's local elections and its impact upon the Government's new unitary authorities. The loss of many of the Tories' heartland power bases is set to heighten the debate currently taking place within the party over school funding and the future direction of its education policy.

While most Conservative councillors blame John Major, "Tory sleaze" and the Blair factor rather than the Government's education policies for last week's disastrous local election results, some senior MPs are urging ministers to lift restrictions on local government spending.

The party hierarchy is also being privately pressed to include a commitment to make all secondary schools grant-maintained in its next general election manifesto. The move, explicitly supported this week by the former education secretary John Patten, reflects concern that opting out has run out of steam, and frustration that LEAs - now dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats - still retain a firm grip on education.

The campaign to lift the "cap" on council spending gained momentum with Robert Spink, parliamentary private secretary to the employment minister Ann Widdecombe, publicly supporting the idea.

"I have been advising the Government to get rid of capping for ages. People can pay for the democratic decisions they take at local level. Many of the new Labour councils will want to spend more money. I don't think they will spend it effectively or appropriately.

"Standards in education won't improve and the public will quickly see this . . . They will learn why they have been Conservatives for the past 18 years, " he said.

According to research carried out the week before the elections by the pollsters MORI, education was number one on the list of voters' concerns.

Thirty-nine per cent of those questioned said education was a salient issue, up 13 points on a similar poll in 1991, and when asked which party had the best education policies, 40 per cent said Labour and 20 per cent the Conservatives.

Les Lawrence, the ousted Tory education spokesman in Birmingham, said the defeat meant the party needed to ask serious questions about its education policies: "The Government needs to pause and reflect on what it is doing and whether the way in which it communicates its policies is correct and whether the policies are going in the direction they should be.

"The basic education policies are very sound but there are areas of finance that need to be modified, particularly the business of actual and average salaries for teachers and the way the standard spending assessment is defined. "

Mr Lawrence, a member of Birmingham's education committee for 13 years, added: "When I was canvassing there was a lot of resentment and unhappiness with the way the Labour group runs the city council but at the end of the day the resentment that people felt towards central government was stronger."

However, many Tory councillors painted a different picture. Richard Hughes-Rowlands, shadow chair of education for Leeds council, where the Conservatives lost eight seats, said he believed education played no part in his group's defeats.

"The main problem is that people are dissatisfied with the Government which keeps making silly errors and seems to be tired and running out of ideas. The sleaze factor is also important, with politicians not keeping the highest standards, and of course Blair is very popular," he added.

Dr Paul Collins, shadow chair of education for Dudley council, where the Conservatives lost 11 seats, also said voters were disillusioned with the Government rather than its education policies.

"Labour tried to make education a big issue but we honoured the teachers' pay settlement in full without redundancies. In Dudley, at least, education cuts didn't really happen.

"The main problem was presentation. The Government was trying to make the point that everybody had to bear their fair share of responsibility for running a tight budget but they didn't get the message across well at all."

Roy Walker, leader of Bury council's Tory group which lost nine seats, said he believed the Blair factor was crucial.

"People like his image, and Labour has now accepted a lot of our educational reforms so voters aren't frightened by the prospect of a Labour government anymore. Many of them in their twenties and thirties can't even remember what it was like to have one," he said.

Vera Jones, shadow education spokeswoman in Sandwell, West Midlands, said there had been few teacher redundancies locally and people were generally happy with schools.

"The reason I and four others lost our seats is purely and simply because this Government is not at all popular," she said.

John Curran, the Tory leader in Oldham who lost the seat he had held for nearly 20 years, said: "We did badly because the election was fought from Westminster rather than from the local authority. As far as John Major is concerned I think he is a very shrewd, able minister who is not getting the support he should have. The fault doesn't lie with him, but he is going to be hounded and made to carry the can."

Despite support from Tory MPs, most councillors believed any moves to try to force schools to go grant-maintained now the Conservatives had all but lost their grip on local authorities would be disastrous.

"It would be an attack on democracy and I would have to reconsider my position in the party," said Bury's Roy Walker. "There's always talk of this happening but I really don't think it will under Gillian Shephard."

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