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Tories prepare to kill the sacred cow

Backbench Conservatives are willing to sacrifice opting out for general election survival, a TES survey has revealed.

Conservative MPs are bracing themselves for the toughest general election for nearly two decades. With Labour's continuing commanding lead in the opinion polls making many nervous of losing their seats, they seem to be ready to abandon ideology in favour of pragmatism.

A telephone poll of more than a fifth of Tory backbenchers, conducted by The TES this week, suggests John Major's Westminster soldiers are somewhat leery of their leader's rallying cry for more grant-maintained schools. Echoing the now famous leaked memorandum prepared for Gillian Shephard last month, in which her aides suggest advice as to how the Cabinet should fight its corner on education, Tory MPs delivered a clear message: concentrate on school standards, and forget opting out. That's the key educational issue; it's what parents care about - and it's where the votes lie.

While this does not preclude support for a radical election manifesto, with a further impetus (perhaps including compulsion, see right) for opting out, it suggests that standards - and by implication the resources to go with them - will be the issue over which the educational battle will be fought.

While only a small number of Tory MPs identified underfunding as the key issue in education it's clear there is considerable concern about parental anxiety. On the question of what issues most concern parents who contact them, either by letter or at their surgeries, almost half identified funding, significantly more than school standards. The related issue of class sizes figured prominently in some post bags.

Asked whether they believed there should be extra money for education next April, the overwhelming majority said yes.

The money should be made directly available for schools to spend on resources and buildings rather than teachers' salaries in 1996-97.

The acknowledgement that more money is needed for education in what could be an election year is, however, tempered by the political need to cut taxes. While some MPs say teachers are underpaid, making it difficult to recruit high-calibre graduates, others share the view of one backbencher, who remarked: "The Government has to reduce taxes if it is to have any chance of winning the general election. It can't give extra funding to education now."

Perhaps for this reason MPs are adamant that teachers should not be made a special case in the forthcoming pay round, saying they should accept the same settlement as other public sector workers. Nor do they believe the Government should fully fund the pay award. Councils and schools should be left to find some of the cost themselves, they believe.

Opinion was evenly split on proposals to scrap spending limits (capping) on local government spending, which some believe would lead to local taxpayers blaming Labour and Liberal councils for rising tax bills. While some Tories think this is a high-risk strategy which could backfire on ministers there is frustration that the party is being blamed for teacher job losses and rising class sizes. As one MP who favours scrapping the cap put it: "We will then see what local authorities will do. At the moment the Government is engaged in a self-flagellation exercise."

James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee, believed the survey accurately reflected feeling among his colleagues.

He said: "We all wish standards in education and training to continue improving and look forward to the Prime Minister making extra cash available for schools."

* The biggest concern reported to MPs by parents relates to school admissions, reflecting the growing number of families frustrated at being unable to get their children into popular schools.

The frustrations result directly from the Government's open-door admissions policy, coupled with a pupil-based funding formula and the publication of school examination results, which have increased problems of oversubscription in popular schools.

As such it is a sensitive subject for ministers, and may explain John Major's wish (so far not backed up with money) to find more money to allow popular schools in England to expand, in line with the policy introduced in Wales by the former Welsh Secretary John Redwood.

Many MPs have received complaints from parents about the appeal system operated by local authorities for children who have been rejected by popular schools.

Edmonton MP Dr Ian Twinn said more parents now complained that their children were unable to enter the primary school of their choice because they did not meet the school's admissions criteria.

He said: "Telling parents, 'You choose the school your children go to' and then saying, 'You cannot get your child into a popular school' is bound to be a serious issue. It is certainly a serious issue for the Government."

Richard Tracey, MP for Surbiton, part of Kingston local authority where schools are overwhelmed by demand, said: "It is the most popular schools which end up with larger classes. But when it comes to admissions there is no doubt parents are frustrated at secondary level and in some cases primary level too."

John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association and headteacher of Durham Johnston school, Durham, was unsurprised by the level of disenchantment with the Government's policy.

He said: "All the rhetoric since open enrolment came in has centred around parental choice. It would be more accurate to describe it as parental preference but you never hear politicians talk about it, and in over-subscribed schools parental preference is absolutely useless."

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