Labour at odds over selection

7th February 1997 at 00:00
When the general election is finally called, an army of men in double-breasted navy suits will be unleashed upon the electors. They will promise to keep public spending and taxes down and not to destroy good schools. They will murmur about looking at the books before making any spending commitments and letting parents decide what is best for their children. They will be the Labour candidates.

That is the vision conjured up by a visit to the Wirral South by-election campaign this week. (The only consolation is that more than 150 of the party's candidates at the next election will be women, who will presumably have a different dress code.) At the launch of Labour's campaign on Monday, two men in navy suits were present. One was John Prescott, deputy leader of the party, the other Ben Chapman, formerly a senior official with the Department of Trade and Industry and now the local candidate. With their broad frames and broad, smiling faces, it was hard to tell which was which.

The smiles had frozen slightly by the end of the first press conference, which was dominated by the unwelcome subject of grammar schools. For the fate of Wirral borough's four grammar schools - two for boys, which have opted out, and two for girls, which have not - is an issue that has been pushed to the fore by a Conservative party that sees in it perhaps the only hope of keeping some of its 8,000 majority. The Tories say Labour would scrap the grammar schools. Labour says it would not impose anything: a ballot of local parents would decide whether the grammars should go.

It is not clear whether the issue is high on the voters' agenda. The Tory candidate, Les Byrom, says it is "absolutely central" while Mr Chapman says it comes up infrequently. But the subject reveals confusion at the heart of Labour policy and tensions between local councillors and central policy-makers.

Graham Lane, chairman of the Council of Local Education Authorities, said recently that councils would start phasing out selection soon after Labour was elected. And last weekend Mick Groves, chairman of Wirral's education committee, told the Sunday Times: "I hope that in time we will see the end of selection. I accept the grammars are good schools but I am against them in principle. There are already murmurings here and I think it is only a matter of time before that leads to action."

Yet on Monday, Mr Prescott and Mr Chapman insisted that the decision would be up to local parents. They became tetchy at repeated questions about which parents would be able to vote in the ballot and would not say if a Labour education secretary would turn down proposals from Wirral LEA to abolish selection. At one stage Ian McCartney, the Labour MP who was chairing the meeting, refused to take any more question on the subject.

This awkwardness must have been balm to the Tories, whose initial attempt to embarrass Labour over its education policy had backfired some days earlier. Eric Forth, the crop-haired, combative schools minister, was marched out of the playground of the Wirral County Grammar School for Girls after Labour claimed he was trying to gate-crash a meeting being held inside by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman. Mr Forth said he had entered the playground to take part in a "head-to-head" interview with Mr Blunkett in a Radio Merseyside car that was parked there. Labour said they knew nothing of any such arrangement.

Press interest has made local schools chary of having anything to do with the by-election. Requests to speak to heads are politely deflected to the borough press office.

The Tory campaign had no comparable dramas on Monday, when the Health Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, visited the constituency for the day. He escorted the candidate on a walkabout in Heswall, the posh part of the constituency, and then to a beef farmer's 17th-century farmhouse perched high above the Dee estuary, where a gathering of elderly Tories listened approvingly to their message about choice in education and urged the Government to remind younger electors what things had been like before 1979. Fleet Street's finest, meanwhile, tried to avoid cracking their skulls on the low beams.

Mr Byrom stressed that selection was absolutely central to the by-election. He poured scorn on Labour's apparent change of heart over grammar schools after 50 years of developing a policy opposed to selection. If the by-election had been in Gloucestershire, Labour would suddenly have discovered they were in favour of fox-hunting, he said.

Mr Byrom, a chartered surveyor and borough councillor in neighbouring Sefton, said the Wirral's good schools were part of the high quality of life in the area. Under Labour, grant-maintained and local authority grammar schools would be forced to go comprehensive.

Over at the Labour campaign headquarters Mr Chapman said education was no greater issue on the doorsteps than health, law and order or employment. He said the Assisted Places Scheme, which Labour is pledged to abolish, had never been raised with him and that the grammar schools came up infrequently.

What did worry voters, he said, was the issue of falling standards. A local poll had found 70 per cent of Wirral South residents thought standards were falling, and other chief concerns were poor school buildings and class sizes. Some 6,000 children in the constituency were in classes of 30 or more, he said.

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