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Labour faces internal war over opt-outs

Labour's plans for the future of grant-maintained schools could come under attack at the party's annual conference this autumn.

The majority of the education motions sent by the constituency parties for debate in Brighton concern the return of grant-maintained schools to local education authorities' control. Many were written before the publication of Diversity and Excellence: A New Choice for Schools, written by David Blunkett, shadow education secretary, which proposes schools choose between three status options - community, aided, and foundation.

However, a motion from Huddersfield urges the Labour party to abolish grant-maintained status "without creating a new class of foundation school, (and) re-establish the strategic control of school state education by elected local education authorities".

Medway constituency Labour party's terse call for the next Labour government to "return GM schools to LEA control" is repeated by many others. But, argues a spokesman from Mr Blunkett's office, many of the motions follow the spirit and the tone of the document. Funding in the three school types is to be equitable, and all schools are to agree their admission policies with the LEA.

Diversity and Excellence was initially overshadowed by John Major's decision to resign from the Conservative leadership.

Opposition to the new policy has been led, however, much to the Labour leadership's embarrassment, by Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the party.

Mr Hattersley, who is to retire from the House of Commons at the end of this session, first wrote a letter to the Independent attacking the document, saying it would allow social selection - middle class parents getting their children into the "best" schools - and would create a two-tier system with foundation schools having a greater cachet.

Last week in the Guardian, Mr Hattersley pursued these themes again. He called foundation schools GM by another name, and said their popularity with parents would exceed the number of places. "Usually places will be offered to pupils who are judged the most likely to enhance a school's esteem. More often than not, they will be the children of the middle classes," he wrote.

Mr Hattersley said he had warned Mr Blunkett that following the election of Labour and after a swing back to the Conservatives in ensuing local government elections, it would be probable that a local authority could support a school which had a selective admissions policy. He believes proximity to the school or attendance of siblings should be the main criteria.

In a letter responding to Mr Hattersley, Mr Blunkett says he will be doing more work on admissions. "The issue of selection, other than by examination, is a serious issue. . . I am prepared to engage in genuine debate with you about how we progress on the matter . . . I have repeatedly argued also that our commitment to comprehensive education must be strengthened by tackling schools which are underperforming."

In a further attempt to defuse opposition, Mr Blunkett, writing in the Guardian this week, reaffirmed the party's commitment to comprehensive education, and promised extra resources to tackle disadvantage, particularly in inner- city schools. But he insisted Labour "must be prepared to learn the lessons of the past".

Tony Blair's decision to send his son to the London Oratory, a Catholic GM school eight miles away from the family home, has angered Labour supporters.

Labour local council members meeting last month made clear their unease at the proposals. They will seek stronger reassurance about the strategic role LEAs will have to play in education.

The traditionalist Socialist Education Association, however, is seeking to play down its unhappiness at Mr Blair's decision in an effort to avoid a public rift and hopes to bring about a compromise between the two camps.

A number of other motions - including calls for the abolition of league tables and imposition of VAT on private school fees - will also question the shift in Labour's education policy since Mr Blair has taken office.

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