Blair `happy to keep Tory schools policies'

Tories attack `utter confusion' of policy as Blair launches document setting out details of party's U-turn on opting-out
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A Labour government would happily keep the best of the Tories' education policies, Tony Blair said yesterday as he announced a change of heart by the party on grant-maintained schools.

Mr Blair, whose son Euan will go to the opted-out London Oratory School in September, said his main aim was to avoid replacing Conservative dogma with socialist dogma.

"We have made it clear that we did not reject all the Tory changes. We are not reviving the old-style control by central or local government. We are maximising the devolution of power to schools themselves," he said.

The plan would allow opted-out schools to become "foundation schools" with charitable status and control of their assets, but with local authorities having a say in admissions and planning. Ten per cent of all schools' budgets would be held back for services such as special-needs provision and music tuition.

There were hints at yesterday's launch of the Diversity and Excellence document that parents might be able to vote in local ballots on 11-plus selection. David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said such decisions would be made by people living within "a reasonably defined catchment area who have an expectation of their children going to that school."

Mr Blair will expand further on Labour's plans in a speech today. He is expected to announce a new "expert teacher" grade, for "super teachers", aimed at stopping the loss of good teachers through promotion to headships or inspectorates.

However, Labour's schools' policy was attacked by the other main political parties. In the Commons, John Major took issue with the title of Labour's document: "`Hypocrisy and Mediocrity' should have been the title of their plans," he said.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said Labour was "in utter confusion" over opting out. "The fact is that 1.3 million parents - among them are Tony and Cherie Blair - want grant-maintained schools, and on the other hand . . . the Labour Party has waged a root-and-branch war against parental choice, against selection and particularly against grant maintained schools," she said.

The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Don Foster, accused Labour of "speaking with a forked tongue." "This document is written testimony to internal dissension within the Labour Party and a clear sign that Blair will do literally anything to become Prime Minister," he said.

Teachers' unions and local authorities said they were broadly happy with the move. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said last week that his union could accept the schools once unfair funding, admissions and planning rules were removed. "I believe that today's announcement can provide an opportunity to create a high quality democratically accountable and non-divisive education system."

However, many grant maintained schools were unhappy about the announcement. Sir Bob Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, said: "This policy means gradual abolition rather than a fast chop."