Voters to be lured over selection

Education is centre stage as the parties gear up for the election. Geraldine Hackett reports.

The Conservatives are expected to go into the election promising to bring back grammar schools. The end to the manifesto battle over whether the Conservatives should campaign on grammar schools is signalled in the agenda for the last pre-election Tory conference.

Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, will have had to agree to the wording of the motion which calls for more secondary school selection and the restoration of grammar schools in response to the wishes of parents.

While the party's annual conference does not set policy, overwhelming support for such a proposal is likely to influence the content of the manifesto. Mrs Shephard has been sceptical about a wholesale return to selection, preferring to stress that Government policy is about creating diversity.

However, the adoption of a policy that would allow the opening of grammar schools amid local authority opposition distinguishes Conservative policy from Labour in a period when the two have grown closer in policy terms. It also serves to wrong-foot Labour and allows the Conservatives to focus on the fact that Harriet Harman, Labour's social security frontbencher, sends one of her sons to a grant-maintained grammar school.

The Tories' intentions emerged on the eve of Labour's conference in Blackpool, where support for comprehensives is expected to be overwhelmingly endorsed.

The expected disagreements at Labour's conference are over proposals to limit child benefit payments and the level of pensions under a future government.

The best efforts of Labour's image-makers may not be enough to prevent discontent surfacing over the party's tough spending line. Despite the pressure to ensure debates take the form of pre-election rallies, serious rows could erupt over the funding of training allowances and the level of pensions under a Labour government.

As always in education, there will be passionate speeches on the need for funding to reduce the size of all classes and improve the lot of students. However, Labour education spokesman David Blunkett can reply that Labour will make a start by cutting the size of classes in infant schools, with funding coming from the phasing out of the Assisted Places Scheme.

The more difficult task of explaining Labour's intentions in using savings in child benefit payments partly to fund a training allowance for 16 to 17-year-olds falls to Gordon Brown, Labour's shadow chancellor. The problem has been confounded by Labour's refusal to say at what earnings level parents would lose child benefit.

With attention focused on tax and benefits, Mr Blunkett is unlikely to be berated again by the party's self-appointed conscience, Roy Hattersley. This year the elder statesman is speaking on the fringe, but he is no longer publicly critical of plans to allow grant-maintained schools to become foundation schools.

The unsettling factor for the party's managers this year is that for the first time individual constituency party delegates have equal voting strength with the trade unions. Their voting intentions are hard to predict and they might be keen to have firm commitments on extra funds for education.

It is also the constituency delegates that decide whether Ms Harman remains on Labour's ruling national executive. Ms Harman's decision to send one of her sons to a grant-maintained grammar school is unpopular within the party, but she may retain her seat.

Labour's spending strictures contrast sharply with the Liberal Democrats' pledge to raise the basic rate of tax by 1p if necessary to put more money into education. The Liberal Democrats would bring grant-maintained schools back within the control of local education authorities; it would abolish performance tables and encourage local areas to end selection.

The ground on which the main parties will fight the general election will be clearer after the Tories meet in Bournemouth. The Conservatives clearly believe they hold an ace with a pledge to restore grammar schools. Labour's response is that the return of grammar schools also means the return of the 11-plus.

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