Major's school visit sends a signal for the battlefield

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John Major chose a private fee-paying school for the first school visit in his general election campaign to send out a clear message that the Conservatives' support for private-sector education will be one of the key battlegrounds with Labour, writes Colin Brown.

Senior Tory sources said Mr Major will "take risks" in the six-week election campaign, and giving priority to private education places will be seen as a highly risky strategy - suggesting that the Tories are keen to bolster their core vote, before trying to widen their appeal.

"I wanted to draw attention to opportunities that exist for youngsters from low-income households who have the advantage of the assisted places scheme to come to schools like Pangbourne," Mr Major said. "It is an indication of the sort of excellence I would like to see right the way through education, in the public sector and the private sector."

Labour would strangle assisted places, and the independent sector and grant maintained schools as well, Mr Major said. "That would wreck diversity of education."

Mr Major, an old boy of Rutlish grammar school, was embraced with open arms by the pupils at Pangbourne College, Newbury, where the fees are pounds 12,000 a year for boarders.

There are 32 assisted places out of a total of 375 pupils at the school, which boasts it caters for the sons and daughters of millionaires and lone parents.

The deputy head, Gerry Pike, attacked Labour's policy as "foolish" and cast doubt on whether Labour would go ahead with abolition of assisted places.

"They are on the hook of having to provide money for nursery education. I suspect that in government, Gordon Brown will be more creative," Mr Pike said.

It was Mr Major's second visit to the school in recent weeks, and his aides said he chose it because he was impressed with its emphasis on team work, and leadership. He was treated to a display by the school's cadet forces.