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Parties take positions for election battle

Education looks set to be an important battleground in the run-up to the general election, writes Frances Rafferty.

While Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has been under fire within the Tory party because she is thought to be losing the propaganda war, the press was also working on Labour spilts.

A story in the Sunday Telegraph said John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, would deliver a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, which would be a robust defence of the comprehensive systemand "open up the wounds" over Labour's education policy.

The paper said his speech had already been seen by certain colleagues and added coyly that "one senior Labour MP" (could it possibly mean Roy Hattersley, new champion of the Left on educational issues?) had called it superb.

Mr Prescott had agreed to return to his former college to take part in a series of lectures organised by Professor Richard Pring called Affirming the Comprehensive Ideal. Mr Prescott gave his lecture the title Lifelong Learning and the Comprehensive Ideal.

However the deputy leader's office rubbished the press report, claiming the speech was not ready yet and would be subject to change. It was suggested that the Sunday Telegraph had seen drafts supplied by other people, possibly Fred Jarvis, former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

Its possible contents were beginning to make Labour's education team twitchy, especially as Mr Blair's speech against mixed-ability teaching had already been criticised by the party's left wing. The TES, which went to press before Mr Prescott's speech, was told by his office that it would not be controversial.

The lecture, destined to be completed just hours before it was due, would include a passionate defence of the comprehensive system based upon the deputy leader's own experience as an 11-plus failure.

In an Opposition debate on standards in the House of Commons earlier this week David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, took pleasure teasing Mrs Shephard over stories that the Tory party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, wanted to beef up her team with a right-winger.

"He [Mr Mawhinney] is suggesting a rabid right-winger is needed in the Secretary of State's team to bring a little sharpness into the debate. I look forward to the reshuffle that may take place in July, when I shall find out who that rabid right-winger might be."

Left-wing Labour MP Dennis Skinner suggested Bill Cash, the Tory Eurosceptic who embarrassed the Government by winning a vote to hold a referendum over Europe.

The Conservatives retaliated by trying to make political capital out of Tony Blair's decision to send his son to a grant-maintained school and Labour health spokeswoman Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a grammar school.

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