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Tories head for election on choice

The Conservatives intend to fight the election as the party that offers parents choice - most importantly, one that includes grammars.

In the quest for votes, the Conservatives are likely to hold out the promise of grammars and specialist schools while castigating Labour as supporting comprehensives. The campaign will also show a party wanting to provide opportunities for bright children as young as five from low-income families to have a Government-funded place in a pre-prep school.

The Education Bill planned for this autumn will extend the Assisted Places Scheme to the primary age range and will allow prep schools to participate. Until now, only secondary places have been available under the scheme.

The legislation will provide the opportunity to highlight the key difference in policy between the parties. It opens the way to greater academic selection by schools and offers the prospect that the Funding Agency for Schools could prepare a case for a grammar in any area that requires a new school.

The areas of population growth are mainly in London and the south-east, where the fight for seats could determine the election result. However, the measures on selection will not have any significant impact on schools before the election because changes in admission policies could not be introduced until autumn next year.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, was due to use her speech to the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth to promote the party as being committed to responding to parents' wishes for grammars and for other specialist schools.

The second line of attack was expected to be the Government's intention to take tough action on indiscipline. A clause in the Bill currently being drafted will enable schools to require parents to sign home-school contracts. It is a late addition to the Bill intended to promote the Conservatives as the party that insists that parents accept responsibility for their children, while at the same time presenting Labour with a problem.

David Blunkett, Labour's education frontbench spokesman, favours such contracts - the party's compulsory summer schools for 10 and 11-year-olds behind in reading would require some form of contract - but the party has yet to decide whether it wants such agreements to be voluntary or a school entry requirement.

The drafting of the Conservatives' manifesto is likely to be reaching its final stages under the control of the Prime Minister's office and the policy unit. The Bill contains elements expected to feature in an election campaign that will concentrate on the Conservatives' claim to offer choice and selection, contrasted with Labour's opposition to academic selection and its support for comprehensives.

The manifesto is likely to repeat the White Paper promise to put a financial squeeze on local authorities by increasing the share of education budgets that go directly to schools on the basis of pupil numbers. It will stress the commitment to nursery education - the vouchers will have started arriving.

More radical proposals to open up the education system to allow independents to set up grant-maintained schools were on the lists produced by the groups set up to produce ideas for the manifesto. Any such promise of private promoters would require a national funding formula. However, it may be that in the final draft such radical ideas will be ruled out. The party does not want to face the accusation from the Opposition that the system requires such an overhaul after 17 years of Conservative governments.

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