Labour woos Redditch youth

Redditch is a new town of about 60,000 people about 15 miles south of Birmingham. It is not terribly remarkable and last hit the headlines only because of a nearby M42 pile-up. The calm pace of life belies the intense political interest in the place, labelled by some as the home of the mythical Mondeo Man.

The new Redditch constituency, with some 62,000 voters, was formerly part of the North Worcestershire constituency held by the education minister Eric Forth.

The seat has a notional Conservative majority of about 3,000, and Labour needs only a 3 per cent swing to put its candidate, Jacqui Smith, into the House of Commons. It is seats such as Redditch that Labour must win if Tony Blair is to become Prime Minister on May 1.

Despite the small number of votes up for grabs, Ms Smith and her Liberal Democrat counterpart Malcolm Hall turned up at St Augustine's School last week to tell sixth-formers about their party's policies and to answer students' questions. The Conservative candidate, Anthea McIntyre, did not attend.

Their queries, vetted and politely read out, covered issues such as the single currency, maintenance for higher education, encouraging more young people to vote, and reducing unemployment.

Ms Smith, a local councillor and economics teacher, gave a confident performance, outshining the less charismatic Lib Demcandidate. Mr Hall, a tourism and leisure lecturer at New (North East Worcestershire) College in nearby Bromsgrove, told students that investment in commerce, industry and education was vital to Britain's future.

This needed to start at nursery level, he said, because it had been shown that every 5p invested in a three-year-old was worth Pounds 1 invested in a 16-year-old.

He repeated party pledges to reduce class sizes, properly fund school maintenance and create better lifelong learning opportunities.

After the event, a group of eight students said they generally felt better informed about the parties' policies, but hadn't found out as much as they had hoped.

Criticism was levelled at both candidates for not mentioning issues such as the environment and others of interest to young people. Cheryl Rendell, 18, liked the Lib Dems' proposal to put an extra penny on income tax to fund education, but other pupils thought voters would rather pay more tax to boost health funding and stop the local hospital from closing.

The pupil who asked about student grants was also unimpressed with Ms Smith's response. "They don't seem to answer you, do they? They seem to twist it, " she said. Another chimed in: "That's what they do, isn't it?" Five sixth-formers hope to go to university, and the financial difficulties that now plague students in higher education were high on their agenda. Many hated the thought of graduating from university thousands of pounds in debt. Unemployment was another prime concern.

Although they believed voters were scared of change, all eight were confident that a Labour government would be elected for the first time in their lives.

This is bad news for the candidate who failed to show at the school hustings, but Anthea McIntyre, a 42-year-old management consultant, believes the Tories' record on education will be enough to win parents' support on May 1.

She cites the Government's determination to tackle low standards, the introduction of the national curriculum and national tests, plus greater autonomy for schools through local management and opting out, as key reasons to vote Tory.

She is critical of the local education authority's handling of education funding, citing a 1 per cent cut in school budgets from April 1. This, she says, is despite the council being giving an increased grant from the Government.

Eddie Oram, Hereford and Worcester deputy county education officer, said the standard spending assessment for 1997-98 will rise by Pounds 7.4 million, or 3.4 per cent.

However, the cost of teachers' pay increases, extra pupils, transport modifications and other expenses totals Pounds 11.2m, leaving a shortfall of Pounds 3.8m. This means schools will face a one per cent cut in real terms in 1997-98.

But just how different Labour's policies actually are from the Tories is a point raised by St Augustine's principal, Carol Buchanan.

"In many cases now, (voters) see Labour and the Conservatives moving closer on education. The Labour party support many of the (government's) changes, " she said.

As head of a grant-maintained school in Hereford and Worcester - one of the country's lowest-spending local education authorities - she is worried about Labour's ability to deliver its promised new-style LEA.

"An incoming government with a lot of items on the agenda would find it difficult to force reluctant LEAs to become new style," Mrs Buchanan said.

Although she believes voters are interested in a number of issues, education is certainly one of them.

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