Blunkett adds to confusion over Labour education policy

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The Independent Online
Uncertainty about Labour's education policy deepened yesterday as David Blunkett, Shadow Education Secretary, declared his opposition to academic selection but refused to say whether the party would abolish grammar schools.

Mr Blunkett's advisers, however, are making it clear that the 150 remaining grammar schools would not be abolished, though attempts might be made to persuade them to go comprehensive. The 11-plus would remain in the local authorities - about a quarter - where it still exists.

Speaking at a Fabian Society conference in Oxford, Mr Blunkett advocated big changes in comprehensives and attacked the "patronising benevolence'' of some teachers and local authorities in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Labour's Scottish education spokeswoman Maria Fyfe attacked plans for a graduate tax floated by Mr Blunkett. Mrs Fyfe also rekindled the argument about the future of grant-maintained schools by saying that Scotland's only opt-out school, Dornoch Academy in Rosshire, would be brought back into local authority control.

In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, Mrs Fyfe said she is against loans but also opposes a graduate tax because there is a "very wide breadth of earning capability'' among graduates. Later Mrs Fyfe was reproved by her boss, George Robertson, Shadow Scottish Secretary, who said that she was expressing "a purely personal view'' and that policy towards student finance would be determined nationally, not in Scotland. Mr Blunkett told the Fabian conference that he suppported "setting'' by ability inprimary schools. But he asserted his commitment to all-ability schools.

Mr Blunkett said: "Tony Blair has made it absolutely clear that there will be no more selection. We should concentrate on offering a comprehensive system for all rather than an escape hatch for the few, reminiscent of the old selective system.''

Questioned by Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, he declined to say whether Labour would abolish grammar schools. He said the comprehensive system, cornerstone of Labour policy for more than 30 years, needed to be rethought. "If comprehensive education is to be meaningful for a new century, it must mean that opportunities and high standards are available to all. That implies a number of important developments in our thinking,'' he said.

He spoke enthusiastically of a project in inner-city Nottingham which has raised reading standards dramatically by teaching children in sets according to their ability.

Mr Blunkett attacked the attitudes of teachers and local authorities which had held working-class children back in the past. He cited the example of his own headmaster, who had a PhD himself but would not enter Mr Blunkett for O-levels.

Labour's policy, he said, offered a vision of the future. "It is not a party reinventing the Sixties and Seventies.''