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Tories seek grammar votes

Geraldine Hackett and Emma Burstall on the impact of selection in marginal seats

London could get up to get 19 new grammar schools if this week's controversial Government proposals to boost selection and specialisation are put into effect.

This week's White Paper will require the quango that oversees the finances of the grant-maintained sector to consider grammar status for any new school.

The Funding Agency for Schools calculates that the London area needs another 19 schools to accommodate its growing population over the next five years. More new schools are likely to be built in the Home Counties and Kent.

The White Paper,"Self-Government for Schools", promotes grammar schools and greater selection in existing comprehensives. It has been welcomed by Conservative MPs fighting to hang on to marginal seats in the South-east, expected to be a crucial battleground in the next general election.

Conservative strategists are keen to promote selection as a central issue in the election and the content of the White Paper has been keenly fought over by the Number 10 policy unit and Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary.

The proposals fall short of John Major's dream to establish a grammar school in every town, and do little to bolster Mrs Shephard's position in the Cabinet. Rumours were circulating this week that Conservative Central Office is pressing for her to be moved to another department.

However, the promise of a possible grammar school in areas of population growth may be enough to satisfy nervous Tory MPs and provide ammunition to campaign against Labour and the Liberal Democrats' commitment to comprehensive education.

Sir Robert Balchin, a member of the FAS's planning committee and chair of the Conservative party's south-east region, suggested this week that the number of grant-maintained grammars could double from the present 70 over the next few years. However, these would come mainly from existing schools wanting to become wholly selective and independent grammars opting into the state sector.

Tory MPs in a number of marginal seats in London and Kent, contacted by The TES, said grammar-school streams in existing comprehensives would particularly boost the party's electoral hopes.

David Shaw, MP for Dover and Deal, whose majority is just 833, said although there was no need for a new grammar school in his constituency because two already existed. However, he would be pushing for their expansion and encouraging some of the mixed-ability high schools to introduce a grammar stream.

Kent County Council and the FAS, which have joint responsibility for secondary schools in the area, are currently considering proposals for a new secondary in the Dartford and Gravesham area. Jacques Arnold, MP for Gravesham, is pressing for a technology school which, under the Government proposals, would be able to select up to half its pupils. "I will be advocating the idea in the coming months," he said.

Toby Jessel, MP for Twickenham, in the London borough of Richmond, who has a majority of 5,711, said he believed greater selection would be welcomed "by a substantial number of parents".

He said: "Many of my constituents send their children to independent schools but there is also a large proportion of professional, executive people who don't. Some of these would welcome a grammar school or grammar-school streams in existing comprehensives. It is something I shall be looking at closely. "

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