Tories see selection as the key

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Geraldine Hackett opens a two-page report on the educational issues that will sway voters during next week's local elections. Next week's local elections may put to the test the Conservatives' view that the promise of retaining or creating grammar schools will win them votes.

The issue of selective education is central to campaigns being fought in the Manchester borough of Trafford and in Milton Keynes.

In Trafford, the future of the borough's five grammar schools is under threat. If Labour wins an overall majority, it intends to consult on abolishing selection and creating comprehensives.

At stake in the elections for the new shadow unitary authority of Milton Keynes - currently part of Conservative-controlled Buckinghamshire - is the future of the county's plan to site a grammar school in the town.

Labour is expected to take control of the council and is committed to challenging the county's decision to create a selective school in Milton Keynes, which until now has been served by comprehensives.

Privately, Conservative Central Office is considering making the promise of a return to selection central to its general election campaign, but there is little concrete evidence as to whether voters are likely to be influenced by such issues.

Overall the Tories, already languishing in third place, are expected to be pushed further behind the Liberal Democrats in local government. They may lose control of their last remaining metropolitan council, Solihull, which they run with the help of Independent councillors.

There are only 3,000 council seats being contested, compared with 12,000 last year. One-third of council seats in the metropolitan authorities are being fought and one-third of the seats in the English districts. Analysts predict the Tories will lose up to 700 seats.

The Conservative party could lose all representation in Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle. It also faces an uphill struggle to take control of any of the 13 unitary authorities that come into being in April 1997. Most of the existing councils in those areas where voters are electing a unitary authority are either Labour or have no overall control.

Keeping Labour at bay in Trafford could be the only consolation for the Conservatives on the morning of May 3. And any sign that the voters were swayed by the prospect of losing their grammar schools might provide some comfort for the general election campaign.

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