Blair puts schools at heart of his agenda: Labour leadership favourite highlights losers from Tory tax policies - Ashdown says Lib Dems are party of the individual

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RAISING educational standards would be 'at the heart' of Labour's programme for 'national renewal', Tony Blair, favourite to lead the party, said yesterday.

Mr Blair made it clear that a Labour government would maintain pupil assessment, parental choice, and the information needed by parents to judge the varying performances of different schools.

Mr Blair's pledge came in a wide-ranging interview in which he went out of his way to highlight the high rates of income tax paid by ordinary families and some middle-income groups under Conservative policies. He told the BBC's On the Record that education was 'key' to improving economic performance and made it clear Labour would not abandon the principles of school league tables - though he described their implementation as 'simplistic'.

Mr Blair declined to say how a Labour government would change grant-maintained schools - but said the party was in the process of examining what the nature of the relationship should be between local authorities and schools. He said: 'The vast majority of parents . . . want to know that their kids are being brought up in a school where there's proper discipline, where they're given homework and expected to do it, where the teachers are highly motivated, where you're knowing how well your kid's doing.'

Mr Blair declined to be drawn on specific tax proposals. Agreeing that those 'earning the most' had benefited most from Conservative tax policies, he said: 'We want to make sure that those that have not benefited get the same chance and the same ability to get on.'

In what may be taken as a hint of a possible narrowing of the top tax band, he added: 'The Conservatives have also brought within the top-rate tax bracket many more millions of people than previously paid top-rate tax. You can get a primary school teacher, even, that is paying top-rate tax.' Mr Blair repeated the theme of tax avoidance and abuse emphasised by Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor.

Last night more than 600 rank- and-file Labour members packed Cardiff City Hall to hear all three leadership contenders in the first of six hustings arranged by the party. Margaret Beckett, the acting leader offered experience and continuity, speaking of 'breaking the fetters and setting people free'. John Prescott scored well his views on full employment. 'We must not be squeamish in talking about traditional socialist beliefs,' he said. 'You can't convince people with fancy phrases.'

Mr Blair's interview came as Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, went out of his way to distinguish his party from 'socialism, even the socialism of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown'.

In a speech to party councillors in west London, Mr Ashdown said Mr Blair had talked last week of the importance of 'ensuring that society worked together to advance the individual'.

The Liberal Democrat leader added: 'Note the starting point - society, the collective.' This, insisted Mr Ashdown, was the 'diametrical opposite of our starting point, which is the unique, singular individual'.