Opt-out mud flies at Blunkett's door

15th March 1996 at 00:00
A primary school in Labour education spokesman David Blunkett's Sheffield constituency could become the focus for political mudslinging as the parties gear up for the next election.

Some Labour sources fear that events in Sheffield Brightside could signal the start of a campaign to embarrass members of the education team by inflaming arguments in their constituencies.

Beck primary - Sheffield's largest with 600 pupils - decided two weeks ago to ballot parents on opting out. Since then the school has kept a determinedly low profile, but the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation and local Tories have been quick to accuse David Blunkett of "politicising" the ballot by calling on parents to vote against opting out.

In a speech to the Grant-Maintained Schools annual conference on Monday, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard used Mr Blunkett's opposition to the Beck opt-out to underscore the supposed ideological rift between the Labour education spokesman and his party colleagues who have chosen grant-maintained schools for their own children.

Labour, she warned, wanted to take away "the very characteristics of grant-maintained schools apparently so prized by Mr Blair and Ms Harman - but not by Mr Blunkett . . . Mr Blunkett is even now busy fighting the attempt by a primary school in his constituency to go grant-maintained."

A spokesman for Mr Blunkett dismissed these barbs as "a desperate Tory attempt to distract from real issues such as standards", but others are more wary. Peter Kilfoyle of Labour's education team said: "One has to be suspicious when very suddenly a number of schools start talking about GM status, as they are in Sheffield, when the whole trend of opting out is in decline".

He said that in his own Liverpool constituency "people are fighting a strong rearguard action against the possibility of Labour gaining power and removing GM status, but these people can't agree among themselves. I find it very odd that any school would consider going GM now - it would seem sensible to see what happens at the election."

He said that the voluntary-aided Blue Coat school in Liverpool was considering balloting parents on GM status. If the school opts out, Mr Kilfoyle can expect some political fallout - Tories have already drawn attention to the fact that he sends his son to the Blue Coat, pointing out that it selects by interview.

Back in Sheffield, Labour education chair Viv Nicholson said that she believed the Tories would step up their campaign on opting out in the run-up to the election, targeting constituencies like Sheffield Brightside so as to cause maximum embarrassment to Labour. "It's suspicious when the GM issue has been very quiet lately. The grant-maintained travelling circus targets chairs of governors and heads to extol the virtues of the GM system. . . there has been activity on GM status in David [Blunkett]'s constituency."

She said that the Beck primary's decision to ballot was "quite odd, because last October governors voted unanimously against pursuing GM status . . . I understand that some governors and staff went to the GM roadshow." She also said that the head of Beck primary, John Cole, was now having doubts about opting out.

Mr Cole told The TES that the school was not speaking to the press and could not reveal the reason for its decision to ballot.

Sheffield's Conservative education spokesman, John Harthman, is also the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for the Sheffield Heeley seat (currently occupied by Labour's Bill Michie). He pointed out that nine Sheffield primaries and two secondaries have already opted out. He maintains that Beck has decided to ballot because it is unhappy with the Labour-run authority's admissions policy and with the proportion of the education budget held back for central services and contingency funds.

To Mr Harthman's argument that schools in Sheffield receive less per pupil than other comparable authorities, Viv Nicholson retorts that this only appears to be so because the authority holds back money for Year 7, releasing it when it is clear which schools 11-year-olds have ended up in. Both major parties in Sheffield appear adept at producing figures to back their case.

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