Tories taunt Blunkett for 'hypocrisy' on education

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Parliamentary Correspondent

David Blunkett, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, insisted that Labour remained against selection and privilege in schooling yesterday, as the furore over Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a grammar school derailed his attack on the Government's plans for nursery school vouchers.

All-party criticism of the voucher scheme, particularly its impact on local authority nursery provision, was swamped as Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, led Tories in an orgy of taunts.

She said the Opposition was in "complete disarray". "Nothing now can hide the basic contradiction and deep division at the heart of Labour education policy.

"Choice and diversity for some members of the Labour front bench - but clearly stated and oft-repeated policy intentions to remove that choice and diversity from everyone else," she said.

Her attack came as MPs debated the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, introducing a scheme entitling parents of four-year-olds to vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to buy nursery provision, whether council, private or voluntary. GM schools will be given limited scope to borrow commercially.

Though the Bill was given a second reading by 285 votes to 253, Tory Iain Mills said he could not support it. Solihull Borough Council, in his Meriden constituency, provided "excellent" nursery schooling at a cost of pounds 1,800 per child, so parents would lose out, he said.

Ms Harman was not in the chamber as her decision to send 11-year-old Joe to St Olave's School in Orpington, Kent, was repeatedly condemned by Tory backbenchers as "contemptible".

Even the maverick George Walden, Conservative MP for Buckingham, broke off from harrying the Government over vouchers for wealthy parents to take a swipe at Mr Blunkett.

"This goes to the core of the whole discussion of education in Britain, namely selection," he said. "The position of Mr Blunkett - I am sorry to say this - and his front bench, is morally and intellectually contemptible."

Challenged by Mrs Shephard to justify Ms Harman's decision, Mr Blunkett said that every parent , whether an MP or not, should "have the right to exercise a preference for their child to go to the school of their choice.

"That preference should not be blocked by any mechanism that prevents a child entering that school, either on its prior attainment at the age of 11 or on the interview of parents. That is why we are against selection, why we will remain against selection"

Nigel Waterson, Conservative MP for Eastbourne, asked Mr Blunkett whether he still agreed with what he had written in the Sheffield Star on 21 November, 1994: "I am having no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and send their children to other schools outside the area."

Inviting hoots of derision from Tories, Mr Blunkett declared there was "total unity" on the Labour side. "We are all preaching one very simple fact - and that is to lift the standard of education for every child in this country, rather than the obsession with the few."