Blair's school choice heralds policy rethink

Labour moved closer to pledging not to abolish grant-maintained schools yesterday, as the party's leader, Tony Blair, defended his decision to choose such a school for his own son.

As first reported in the Independent in June, Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, have applied to send Euan, 10, to a grant-maintained Catholic comprehensive school, London Oratory, in Fulham, eight miles from their Islington home.

Yesterday, Mr Blair said he did not want his choice to become a political football. He told BBC Breakfast News: ''We want to get the best for our child from the schools for which the school he is at at the moment is a feeder school.''

Amid signs that Labour was speeding up efforts to formulate a policy on grant-maintained schools David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, said: ''The truth is that [Mr Blair's] child could have gone to this school under previous Labour or Conservative governments.''

Mr Blunkett insisted Labour policy had not changed ''one iota'', although he used markedly less abrasive language yesterday to describe grant-maintained schools than that used in this summer's Labour Green Paper on education.

An aide said a Labour government would not permit any new grant-maintained schools, but that the party was ''not in the business of prohibition''. However, it would insist on the ''maximum amount of equitable treatment'' over funding.

Mr Blunkett said: ''We believe all schools must be treated equitably by a Labour government, building on the diversity of management and organisation which has always been a feature of our education system. That is why I have announced my intention to open discussion with representatives of all schools.''

Ministers were quick to exploit the Blair family's choice of school. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said the Blairs had passed up the chance to send Euan to 50 other schools nearer to their home.

''Mr and Mrs Blair's decision will cause huge embarrassment to his Labour colleagues, who will face the impossible task of squaring this decision with the party's words,'' she said.

''Quite how they will bring their Labour local education authority colleagues on board with this astonishing volte face remains to be seen. Or maybe it is merely that they are prepared to exercise choice for their own children which they have voted to deny to others.''

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