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Selection vow wows delegates

Labour this week set out its claim to be the political party with the toughest policies on standards and the most ambitious schemes for nursery education.

Shadow education secretary David Blunkett told the party's conference in Blackpool that a Labour government would focus on ensuring that 10 and 11-year-olds did not fall behind with their reading.

There are plans to pilot 25 centres of excellence that would combine nursery education and day care for children under five, paid for on a sliding scale dependent on parents' income. Even single parents on income support would pay a nominal sum.

Mr Blunkett promised a national force of millennium volunteers, a repackaging of Labour's proposals for a citizens' service.The intention is to have six-month-long schemes open to all 18 to 25-year-olds either in work or unemployed.

He said the party wanted to ensure"that all young people who wish to can take up a voluntary place".

Labour's target is to involve 100,000 volunteers by the year 2000, with funding coming from the windfall levy on the utilities and private sponsorship.

Unfortunately for Mr Blunkett, the most headline-grabbing plan - to set up crammer summer camps for 10 and 11-year-olds a year or more behind in reading - had been announced the previous day by the party's leader Tony Blair. Labour intends parents of primary-age children to sign up to home-school contracts that include a commitment to the extra tuition. It is unclear whether the party would make such contracts legally enforceable.

However, the message that met with the greatest approval from delegates in Blackpool was Mr Blunkett's repeat of the vow that there would be no increase in selective education under a Labour government.

The Conservatives, he said, are offering the promise of a grammar school in every town, a secondary modern in every housing estate. Labour, he said, was not in favour of creating such divisions.

The voucher scheme for nursery places was proving a disaster, he said, and would be replaced by a plan to provide a nursery place for all four-year-olds with targets to do the same for three-year-olds.

"The voucher scheme is the biggest fraud of all. And, even Tory Westminster has had to admit it. Over a million pounds spent on advertising the pilots, which could have provided an extra thousand places."

The debate was a remarkable display of Labour's intention to demonstrate that it is drafting a programme for government and is no longer concerned with such divisive issues as the future of grant-maintained schools.

In the main, the delegates appeared to endorse Labour's policy revision, with only token attacks on testing and performance league tables.

The party is only making the most carefully-costed commitments on additional resources in education. The reduction in class sizes is to be paid for through the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme. There are only to be 25 of the one-stop nursery day-care centres.

The conference even had Alan Howarth, a former Conservative education minister, lined up to condemn the "feckless" policies of his former party.

Mr Howarth, who described himself as member of the Stratford-upon-Avon Labour party, accused the Conservatives of having abandoned fairness.

The former minister for higher education confessed to having joined Labour in protest at a so-called enterprise culture that allowed the heartless treatment of the young unemployed. There was, he said, a sheer waste of young lives with people on dustbin training schemes.

The personal popularity of the leader of Labour's education team was confirmed by his 75-second standing ovation. Though, these days, almost everyone gets a standing ovation at Labour's annual conference.

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