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Labour set to shift opt-out stance

Geraldine Hackett expects stormy scenes in the GM debate at the party conference. Labour's debate on education at next week's conference is likely to be constructed in a way that ensures the party will ditch its long-standing policy of returning grant-maintained schools to local authority control.

The party's managers are preparing for a heated debate over plans to create foundation schools. Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader, and the most prominent opponent of the policy, may well speak from the rostrum.

However, the debate will be focused around two motions drawn up from the 67 submitted and delegates will be encouraged to vote against the composite that sets out opposition to foundation schools and calls for grant-maintained schools to be taken back into the control of local authorities.

The final drafts of motions do not appear until just before the conference opens, but in preliminary discussions the Socialist Education Association has agreed to remove from its original submission any reference to grant-maintained schools being reintegrated into the local authority sector.

Much of the SEA motion will be merged with the submission from the Labour Students organisation, which welcomes the party's recent policy document dealing with the future of grant-maintained schools.

David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, will urge support for that composite which also commits Labour to equitable funding for schools; fair and non-selective admission policies; the ending of grant-maintained status and the phasing out of the assisted places scheme.

Any mention of schools being taken back into local authority control is likely to be relegated to the composite that expresses opposition to foundation schools and calls for legally enforceable maximum class sizes.

The policy likely to emerge will be in line with the recent paper from Mr Blunkett, Diversity and Excellence, but it may not put an end to the party's problems over grant-maintained schools. The overwhelming concern among activists, as reflected in the number of motions to conference, is that grant-maintained schools should become local authority schools.

In addition, the Conservative party appears certain in the run-up to the election to exploit the fact that Labour's leader, Tony Blair, and Harriet Harman, a member of the shadow cabinet, have sons at the Oratory, a London grant-maintained school.

Conservatives in Islington South and Finsbury have submitted a motion for their party conference which reads: "This conference deplores Tony Blair's overt cynicism in sending his childto a non-local grant-maintained school, whilst hypocritically maintaining Labour's policy against freedom of choice in education, and notes that this is a sad indictment of standards in Islington's Labour-run schools."

The Prime Minister has already raised the prospect of allowing greater freedom to grant-maintained schools by allowing them to draw up admission policies for selecting pupils without having to get approval from the Department for Education and Employment.

The number of motions in the Conservative agenda praising grant-maintained schools suggests the policy remains popular with the party's grass roots even though the number of schools voting to opt out has dramatically declined.

However, Tory activists are also worried that parents will blame the Government for any cuts in school budgets that could result from this year's teachers' pay award and there are calls in the agenda for ministers to remove restrictions on the amount local authorities can raise from their ratepayers.

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