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War before education

Parents think Blair's main priority is no longer schools but the conflict in Iraq. Michael Shaw and Karen Thornton report.

Parents believe Tony Blair has failed to fulfil his promise to make education his top priority because he has been distracted by the war in Iraq.

The Prime Minister famously pledged before Labour came to power that the party's three main priorities would be "education, education, education".

But an exclusive TES Cymru poll has found that eight out of 10 parents feel he has failed to make education his chief concern since the last election.

Asked what they thought Mr Blair's main priority had been, only 15 per cent said education, behind Iraq (40 per cent) and the war on terrorism (18 per cent).

But half of Welsh parents said they would like to see a flagship New Labour education policy - specialist schools - introduced in Wales. The initiative, originally a Conservative policy, has been rejected by the Welsh Assembly government.

In England, more than three in five secondaries now specialise in a particular subject area such as technology, languages or sports. They have to raise Pounds 50,000 of corporate sponsorship but receive more cash per pupil from the Government than ordinary schools, plus a one-off pound;100,000 for building improvements.

The findings, from a survey of 800 parents in England and 200 in Wales, come as Labour prepares for its annual conference, which begins in Brighton this weekend.

The TES poll will add further weight to both Labour and Tory plans to give more power to parents and schools. Most of the parents surveyed (54 per cent in Wales) said they felt they had too little say over the way schools were run and Welsh parents in particular (65 per cent) felt Westminster Government ministers interfered too much, with 42 per cent saying the same about Assembly ministers.

But around half of Welsh parents felt headteachers, governors, education authorities and inspection agency Estyn had "about the right amount" of say over schools.

However, the survey, by FDS International, also indicates that parents would be unhappy with several other education policies put forward by the Tories.

The Conservatives have proposed that all schools should be allowed to make their own decisions about admissions. Michael Howard, the Opposition leader, has also suggested the party would like to see an expansion in the number of schools selecting by academic ability.

But the TES Cymru survey shows that parents think that giving school places to the cleverest children is the worst way to allocate them. Welsh parents (70 per cent) are particularly opposed to selection by ability, with 56 per cent saying priority should be given to children who live closest to the school. Only 9 per cent of Welsh parents felt that schools should be free to admit whoever they chose.

Alex Smith, a mother-of-two from Cwmbran, said: "Selecting by ability is something I haven't any time for. I think all schools should be geared up to provide support for children with special needs or behavioural problems.

Those kids would miss out if pupils were selected by ability alone."

At the heart of both Labour and Conservative education policies are plans which will lessen the control of local authorities.

Plaid Cymru wants to work with councils and ensure sensitivity to local needs -but is reviewing its position on education funding.

Yet most parents were supportive of their local education authorities, with a majority saying that LEAs deserved a greater say in schools, rather than less.

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