Short stirs Labour education row

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Political Editor

Turbulence within the Labour Party over the decision of Harriet Harman, its health spokeswoman, to send her son to a grammar school, intensified yesterday with a robust attack by her colleague Clare Short on selective education.

Ms Short's backing for a non-selective education policy came amid strong indications that Ms Harman continues to enjoy the full backing of Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and that he "respects" her decision to send her second son to St Olave's School in Bromley.

Ms Short, Labour transport spokeswoman, said: "They [Ms Harman and her husband] must make the decision for their child and must answer to Harriet's constituents for it."

While denying that the move would "rock the unity" of the party, she went out of her way to mount a strong defence of Labour's opposition to selective education.

"Britain's old tradition of having selection and having an elite that do well educationally, and writing off most children for a future of unskilled work will not do any more," she said.

"The old yearning for selection for some, rather than improvement in standards for all, will not serve the children of our country or our economic needs. We must do better. We must enhance standards right across the system."

By contrast, it was emphasised by other senior Labour sources that they were "relaxed" about Ms Harman's move and that she had not acted "in conflict" with Labour policy, because this itself had left it open to local councils to preserve existing grammar schools. Indeed, it was made clear that councils would not be able to abolish such grammar schools without a ballot of local parents - which would be virtually certain to endorse existing grammar schools.

One senior Labour figure suggested Ms Harman's move could help to reassure parents who believe in grammar schools and are considering voting Labour. That argument draws some support from a Harris poll showing that more than half the electorate want the Government to bring back grammar and secondary modern schools.

Fifty four per cent of the 980 adults questioned in the poll backed a return to grammar schools, secondary moderns and the 11-plus. However, the return of grammar schools and the 11-plus is not supported by the youngest group in the survey - the 18-24-year-olds with the most recent experience of comprehensive education - or by the group most likely to have school-age children - the 35-44-year-olds.

Baroness Williams, who as Shirley Williams was the last Education Secretary in a Labour government, while expressing sympathy for Ms Harman, accused the party of being in disarray. "I think Labour politicians are leaping for the lifeboat. But, crucially, as a Labour Party that wants to be a Government, they have to look not to the lifeboat, but to the ship," she said.

Unlikely rebels, page 2

Leading article, page 12