Blair leads class war charge

Inside Parliament
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Tony Blair yesterday provided the Prime Minister with all the invitation necessary to twist the knife in Labour's wounds over education policy.

Having on Wednesday rescued his shadow Secretary of State for Health, Harriet Harman, from the turmoil over sending her 11-year-old son to a grammar school, education might have seemed a subject for the Labour leader to steer clear of at Question Time.

But, as was said of Lord Cardigan at Balaclava, showing the qualities "more of a hero than a general", he galloped in on the latest school test results.

Those for 11-year-olds in English and maths were "appalling", he said, going on to suggest, among other things, a reduction in class sizes for five- to seven-year-olds and the reinstatement of the reading recovery programme.

Mr Major accepted the results at 11 were "disappointing", but said those at other ages were better. Then came the political punches as he recalled Labour opposing the tests and Mr Blair personally voting against them.

"Those test results are very useful. They tell us where the shortcomings are ... and we will look at a range of measures to deal with them."

To a barrage of jeers, the Labour leader said it was a "complacent reply". Nor was the problem merely with 11-year-olds. Tests at 14 showed "an appalling level of failure" in key subjects - and they were children born and educated under a Tory government.

Declaring it was not Conservatives at fault, Mr Major asked Mr Blair to explain why some of his friends removed their children from Labour education authorities and had them educated under Conservative ones.

Mr Blair hesitated as if he had not intended a third question, but with Tory MPs baying for more, he rose again. "Now we see the reason they want to focus attention on one 11-year-old child is to conceal the damage they have done to millions of our children," he said. But the Prime Minister scored again, suggesting Mr Blair "learn to keep cool under pressure".

A more defensive tone was adopted by the Prime Minister and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, over their adoption of a Unionist-driven plan for an elected forum as the way to break the deadlock and advance the peace process.

With nationalist fury ringing in the chamber, Mr Major said he would like to see the start of all-party talks "as speedily as possible". The impediment was, as always, the unwillingness of "Sinn Fein-IRA" to disarm. "If they will begin the decommissioning of their arms, there would be no justification for any party not to attend and join in all-party talks."

Earlier, the SDLP's Seamus Mallon accused the Government of "unilaterally and shamelessly" reneging on an agreement with Dublin to pursue all-party talks. Ministers had "sacrificed potential consensus" for Commons support.

Sir Patrick shook his head. All-party talks could still begin by the target date of the end of February provided a start was made to decommissioning. But if that was not going to happen - as the Mitchell Commission conceded - it was the duty of governments to look to see whether there was another way of creating confidence. "That is to be found in the alternative route of elections."