Blair backed over opt-out schools

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Political Editor

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday secured an impressive victory over party critics of his policy on opt-out schools - only to face a further test for "new" Labour when the conference divides today on motions to scrap Trident and abandon the pledge to call a referendum on electoral reform.

The victory by a three-to-one majority followed a highly charged debate in which David Blunkett, education spokesman, rounded on Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader, who had called on the party to stop propping up the "failed" system of grant-maintained schools. Mr Hattersley, in what would have once been the implausible role of darling of the party's left wing, received a standing ovation after calling for a concerted drive against the country's remaining 150 grammar schools and declaring: "For God's sake let's stop apologising about comprehensive schools."

But the conference defeated by 76.4 to 23.6 per cent a call for all schools to be returned to direct local authority control after Mr Blunkett pledged the "renewal" of comprehensive education and that schools in the poorest areas would be given priority in funding. Instead it approved a new policy under which the opt-out schools would be absorbed into a new category of "foundation schools" which Mr Blunkett, who was also given a standing ovation, emphasised would be prohibited from any form of selection, academic or "social", by interview or examination. Parents in the catchment areas of existing grammar schools would have the right to vote on whether to retain them. Mr Blunkett scorned those who "believe that they and they alone are the custodians of the Holy Grail".

Bitterness over Mr Blair's decision to send his son, Euan, to the Oratory, a Roman Catholic GM school in west London, surfaced when Margaret Rosher, a retired teacher from Coventry, said she felt a "a great sense of betrayal" at the decision by the party leader and Harriet Harman, employment spokeswoman, to send their children to opt-out schools. But allies of Mr Blair were pleased that most constituency parties backed the new policy.

Meanwhile, party managers averted one possible defeat today when the national executive decided not to call, because of lack of time, two motions seeking a cut in defence spending to the West European average. The executive had voted at the weekend by 14 to 7 to oppose the call.

But managers feared a close vote on a motion to scrap Trident, which could be used to undermine Mr Blair's projection of Labour as the "patriotic" party. They were also predicting a close vote on the pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform after the general election - though reformers were still predicting a narrow majority.