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Minister sees votes in the nursery

It's that time of the year when education ministers turn up in the most unlikely of places.

Stephen Byers. the school standards minister, was admiring a nursery class at Gayhurst school in Hackney, east London, last week - so it must be the run-up to the local elections.

Confirmation came with his words: "I hope that Hackney will elect a new Labour council on May 7 who will work with Tony Blair's Government to improve education in this borough."

Education never goes away as an issue in the first - and only - authority to have a government hit squad sent in to tackle major failings. Labour is hoping to heal internal wounds in the local party which has led to a group of rebel councillors being expelled. Most have since joined the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

But elsewhere, local elections - affecting 10 unitary and all the metropolitan education authorities - look more likely to be swayed by the vagaries of national party popularity than the specifics of educational issues.

Dave Wilcox, deputy chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee, said: "I think education is an issue in every authority that is responsible for education and up for election."

"But if you look at opinion polls and election results, they reflect the generality rather than the specifics - unless there is some very harmful or potentially unpopular move being taken by the authority."

The Liberal Democrats have their sights set on seizing control of Stockport which would give it its first metropolitan authority.

But Howard Sykes, of the Association of Lib-Dem Councillors, is also expecting gains in the London boroughs of Richmond, Sutton, and Kingston.

In Bradford, up to 70 schools could close as part of a proposed reorganisation to create a new two-tier structure instead of the three existing ones of lower, middle and upper schools.

Opposition councillors say parents are just beginning to realise how they will be affected and predict Labour will lose control of the authority in two years - claims dismissed by the Labour leadership.

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