Labour's new team set out stalls

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Tony Blair urged to think twice over school decision for his son as colleagues oppose further opt-outs. Peter Kilfoyle, Labour's new junior front-bench education spokesman, is an unequivocal opponent of grant-maintained schools.

The most cursory of glances at his record in his home city of Liverpool illustrates starkly where his sympathies lie.

The former teacher has been involved in two opt-out campaigns in Liverpool - "St Francis Xavier, where I was on the losing side (the school opted out in 1990) and the Blue Coat school, where I was on the winning side."

His boss, David Blunkett, this weekend praised his neighbourhood comprehensive - the Sheffield school two of his three sons attend - in his first speech as Labour's education spokesman.

And not one school has opted out in the Oldham constituency of Bryan Davies, the third member of Labour's education team.

While Labour leader Tony Blair has been somewhat equivocal about his party's GM schools policy and has considered sending his son to an opt-out school, it is apparent where loyalties lie within his new education team.

Mr Kilfoyle set his stall out clearly before local authority education leaders meeting in Liverpool last week, when he spoke of the winning and losing sides he had been on in GM campaigns in Liverpool.

Mr Blunkett, meanwhile, chose to deliver his maiden speech as education spokesman at his sons' school, Yewlands, which draws pupils from one of the most deprived areas in his Sheffield constituency. He said: "At this school, over the past four years, the number of pupils gaining A-C grades in GCSE examinations has doubled."

"There is still a long way to go but standards are being lifted and expectations are being raised - expectations for pupils, for parents and, above all, for teachers who must not write off pupils because they come from a deprived background or because there is not a history of academic achievement in the family."

Raising standards in inner-city schools will be a high priority for the new team not surprising given both MPs' own experience.

"Anything less than the highest possible standards only serves to trap youngsters in a cycle of deprivation and under-achievement, to reinforce failure and to increase the gap between those who succeed and those who fail," said Mr Blunkett in his speech at Yewlands, which sons Hugh, 14, and Andrew, 12, attend.

"That gap between the rich and the poor and between the successful and the unsuccessful must be narrowed by ensuring that education forms a ladder on which everyone can find a foothold and which offers the opportunity of lifelong learning."

Mr Kilfoyle echoed this, saying: "Politicians have to make real resources available to deprived areas. We can't allow mediocrity. Mediocrity is out. "

Hardly contentious, but the issue of how opt-out schools are to be dealt with under a Labour government remains a political hot potato.

For while Labour has said it wants to talk to opt-out heads and governors about their future, Mr Kilfoyle told the annual meeting of metropolitan LEAs: "The form is open to negotiation, the principle is not. I can think of nothing more pernicious than the way the Government bribed schools in the early years. Preferential funding of GM schools must cease and GM schools must be democratically accountable."

Labour's strategy on grant-maintained status will clearly be high-profile, not least because, before becoming leader, Tony Blair attended a parents' open day at the London Oratory with a view to sending his son there. The school, which opted out of the control of the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham five years ago, is a leading Catholic school and would involve Mr Blair's son crossing at least two city boundaries.

Graham Lane, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' education chair, urged the Labour leader to think twice. "It will constantly cause questions to be asked," he said. "If Tony Blair wishes to have a Catholic education for his child, there are very many good voluntary-aided Catholic schools near where he lives."

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