Leading article: Major's class act

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The Independent Online
It takes a lot of nerve for a Conservative Party leader to make class an election leader, but that is exactly what Mr Major did yesterday. That he enjoys painting himself as the lad who fought his way up from Brixton we already know. What is new and potentially potent in his attack on Mr Blair is his tarring of the smart, young professional Labour leadership as elitist, chattering classes who are all too ready to whisk their kids off to posh schools leaving you, the ordinary voter, exactly where you were. Mr Major's claim is that he is an honest, ordinary sort of bloke you can trust; Mr Blair, public-school-educated, remember, is one of the snooty, metropolitan middle classes who looks down on ordinary folk.

That will only work up to a point though. Mr Major is undoubtedly right to attempt to identify the Conservatives once again with working- and lower-middle-class aspiration. He is also right to do that through education rather than property ownership. Education is the ticket to jobs, higher wages, prosperity and security. Ambitious parents from all walks of life are deeply concerned about the quality of education.

But a return to a system of selection that would divide pupils between schools is not the answer. Some will benefit. The vast majority of children and parents will not. Oversubscribed schools will be able to choose the easiest pupils to teach, enhancing the reputation of the school and increasing the number of disappointed parents who cannot get their child into the school of their choice. Separating children of different abilities into different schools will raise the very British danger of stigmatisation. The 80 per cent of children educated in Secondary Modern schools were branded failures at the age of 11.

Mr Major will have a lot to do to persuade the parents of less able children that exclusion from the top academic schools will not doom them to a second- or third-class education. The dilemma of how to combine parental choice, with selection and yet high-quality education for all our children is not exclusive to Labour: the Tories have not found a solution either.

So beware Mr Major. If you go too far down the path of selection in an attempt to expose new Labour hypocrisy you may find yourself the legitimate target of accusations that you want to turn the clock back to the bad- old Fifties.

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