Tories refuse lessons on education policy

Inside Parliament; t Government reveals councils to pilot nursery voucher scheme t Major defends Portillo over anti-Europe speech
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The Independent Online
The key election issue of education came up in departmental questions yesterday, but as luck would have it, the Government only had relative failure to announce. It was left to Robin Squire, a junior minister, to reveal to nobody's surprise that just three Tory councils, all of them in London, will pilot the nursery voucher scheme.

In spite of considerable behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, only Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea have agreed to test out the scheme allowing parents of four-year-olds to redeem vouchers worth pounds 1,100 at the nursery of their choice. Although Mr Squire said he hoped to add to the list, the announcement was a far cry from the longer and regionally spread list originally envisaged, Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour education spokesman, emphasised.

James Pawsey, Tory MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, then had Labour MPs beckoning him across the floor as he urged Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to badger the Cabinet to properly fund teachers' pay. "The Government's education reforms have done much to improve the quality and standards of state education. Would she, however, agree that an increase in class sizes may in fact put those reforms in jeopardy?" he asked. Mr Pawsey was "an inspiration and a support as always" at a time of "vigorous" debate at this point in the year, Mrs Shephard replied.

That was the extent to which Conservatives were prepared to stick their head above the parapet, however, as speaker after speaker agreed with Mrs Shephard that class size was not everything.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, was waiting to take aim at Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, sitting close by. "Would the Secretary of State agree with me that when the Deputy Prime Minister last week said that it was necessary to allow 60,000 children to escape, as he put it, from the inadequacy of inner-city education, he was giving the biggest indictment possible of 16 years of Conservative government. If there's pounds 220m available, it should go in lowering class sizes for one and a half million children in infant school or 7 million children in our state system and not simply allowing 60,000 to escape from Tory incompetence."

Mrs Shephard retorted that members opposite had consistently opposed everything the Government had tried to do to raise standards. "That is well known and well documented and so is their principal motivation of class envy ... the party opposite is the enemy of aspiration."

Later, at Prime Minister's Questions, John Major took his first opportunity to take a dig at Labour defector Alan Howarth, who yesterday sat next to Greville Janner, the MP for Leicester West who with foresight once urged Mr Howarth to cross the floor during a debate on economic and social policy.

Bob Dunn, the Conservative MP for Dartford, had urged Mr Major to compare Conservative policies of "maximising parental choice" with Labour's plans to "destroy CTCs, destroy grammar schools, destroy the assisted places scheme and destroy the grant-maintained schools in the interests of equality, justice and social engineering".

Mr Major replied: "What we seek is excellence in education and choice in education for all parents ... I regret very much that the Opposition oppose the assisted places scheme - except perhaps for the honourable gentleman for Stratford-upon-Avon."

But there was a strong prime ministerial backing for Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, after last week's anti-European speech.

Replying to Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman, Mr Major insisted: "Michael Portillo was expressing the fears of many people, not just in the United Kingdom but right across Europe about the more ambitious, federalist plans for the future of the European Union.

"If you are saying it is the policy of your party that the British armed forces should be commanded by qualified majority vote elsewhere, then say so."