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Think tank beset by political confusion

That most fashionable of think-tanks, the Social Market Foundation, has probably more influence on Conservative policy than the more ideologically committed groupings that used to hold sway.

It was at the offices of the SMF that John Major last week gave his keynote speech on the reforms he wanted to see in schools. According to Roderick Nye, the think tank's director, the Prime Minister decided to take up a long-standing invitation to speak to a SMF audience.

At its inception, the foundation was closer to the SDP, but it has long been an advocate of a more market-based education system. It is supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation set up by David Sainsbury.

The latest links with the Conservative party have mainly come about through Daniel Finkelstein, who left the SMF last year to become head of research at Conservative Central Office. Mr Finkelstein. a former aide to David Owen, had earlier switched his allegiance to the Tories. As Mr Finkelstein was being recruited by Central Office, the SMF was busy recruiting Stephen Pollard, research director at the Fabian Society, a right-wing Labour forum, to head its research department.

The significance of the Pollard appointment was that, although a member of the Labour party, his views on education chime with those held by the Prime Minister. In fact, the Fabian Society declined to publish Mr Pollard's views on the need for more selection in schools. His polemic, Schools, Selection and the Left, appeared under the SMF imprint.

The radical Mr Pollard is in favour of the abolition of local education authorities and argues that all schools should become grant-maintained, with their funding coming direct from central government on the basis of a national formula.

The SMF is keen not to be seen as a Conservative party think-tank - it recently invited David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, to give a lecture on the future of comprehensive education.

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