Grammar schools safe with us, say Labour

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Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, yesterday moved to reassure voters that the party had no intention of abolishing grammar schools. While Tony Blair will today tell party members that Labour would find more money for education by cutting Britain's welfare bill.

Mr Blunkett's statement came after claims by the Conservative Party that two selective schools in Wirral South, scene of a fiercely contested by- election, would be abolished under Labour.

Mr Blunkett strengthened Labour's existing policy, which is that local ballots on the future of such schools would be triggered only by parents and not by local authorities or other groups. Now the party has decided that only parents from a grammar school or its feeder primaries can call for a vote, and that they must do so by petitioning the Secretary of State for Education. Only the minister would be able to decide whe-ther enough parents have called for a ballot, Mr Blunkett said.

Mr Blunkett said yesterday that he might send in "hit squads" to run "failing" local authorities and to raise standards. "People have misunderstood what we're saying. We've never been in favour of abolishing schools. We've been in favour of an open admissions policy and we've said 161 historic grammar schools should decide admissions policy through parents."

In Huntingdon, John Major seized on the issue in an attempt to put pressure on Labour.

The Prime Minister said: "The acid test is would they, as we would, permit the establish-ment of new grammar schools? And the answer to that is that they most certainly would not ... there are good grammar schools in Wirral that have every reason to be frightened on Labour's record, of what Labour would do."

Meanwhile, the Labour leader will today pledge that money saved through getting 250,000 people off benefits and back to work will go to schools and colleges. This will be the first part of a 10-part "contract with the people" to be unveiled before the election. Mr Blair will tell his party's local government conference in Nottingham that the exercise will "reduce the cost of failure."

Mr Blair's speech is the first indication of how his planned review of departmental spending might develop. In his last big set-piece speech before the general election, the Labour leader will spell out some of the priorities in his manifesto on education - a chapter which he plans to write himself.

Graham Lane, chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' Education Committee, said Labour councils still wanted grammar schools to be abolished, and predicted that the last selective intake would be in about 2007. There would be nothing to stop local authorities from encouraging parents to petition, he added.