Education at forefront as Major hits the road

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Education will be underlined as a crucial battlefield for the general election in keynote speeches next week by both the Prime Minister and Tony Blair, the Labour leader.

Both speeches come next Tuesday, in John Major's case at a Birmingham rally of party faithful at the conclusion of a national tour, and in Mr Blair's on the occasion of his first address as leader to the TUC annual conference in Brighton.

Disclosure of the coincidental timings by Downing Street provoked immediate scorn from Labour. "This is the latest evidence that the whole business of government is largely dictated by what Tony Blair does," a spokesman said.

One Labour aide insisted that plans by Mr Major to bring about a rapid expansion in grant-maintained schools - deregulation measures are being urgently examined prior to next Tuesday's event - have been timed to coincide with Mr Blair's 11-year-old son Euan's first day at the grant- maintained London Oratory school. The choice of the school, which admits pupils after interviews, followed by a Labour policy paper rejecting the unequivocal return of opted-out schools to local authorities, sparked a bitter row in Labour's ranks.

Yesterday, the party denounced Mr Major's tour, beginning on Thursday, as another example of the Tories "shutting down government".

The tour will start in Luton, Bedfordshire, before taking in Scotland on Friday and a weekend with the Queen at Balmoral and visits to Newcastle upon Tyne the following Monday and Birmingham on Tuesday. Alongside the expansion of grant-maintained schools, Mr Major's address in Birmingham is also expected to revisit some of the territory covered in an interview with the Times a fortnight ago, when he pledged to expand popular schools, close poor ones, crack down on discipline and encourage local performance targets.

The exercise will be followed by what is expected to be an all-day political Cabinet at Chequers tomorrow week to set priorities for the next election.

While education has become an election priority for both parties, Labour will seek to argue that the respective focuses are very different. The Labour leader's speech to the TUC will focus on Tory "betrayal" of the electorate over taxes and the economy and the Conservatives' inability to tackle the fundamental preconditions for economic progress of investment in education, skills and training.

Speaking to management graduates at Henley last night, David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said investment in skills and in lifting people out of dependency had to be viewed the same as long-term investment in plant and machinery in the Industrial Revolution. John Major was "more concerned with dividing education by returning to a past agenda, an elitist rather than a meritocratic education system".

t Tony Blair today strongly denies as "total and absolute drivel" reports that he plans to dilute the proposed powers of a Scottish parliament in an interview with BBC Scotland.