The one promise Blunkett can afford to break

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Education has always been at the heart of traditional Labour policy. Many aspects were considered too sacred to be done away with in the wake of the 1992 election defeat. At the time, Labour's attitude towards grammar schools was uncompromising: "We will end selection at 11 where it still exists."

This ambition had been dear to many Labour hearts ever since the then education secretary Tony Crosland's vow of 1965 that "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every f...ing grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland."

Nowadays there aren't any grammar schools in Wales (and Northern Ireland is someone else's business) but it must have been a thrill to David Blunkett - wedded to many of the traditional polices in 1992 - that when he was put in charge of Labour's education policy he was given the opportunity to fulfil Crosland's dream. The 160-odd remaining grammar schools in England should be easy meat, shouldn't they? Certainly that's the impression Mr Blunkett appeared to give at the 1995 party conference when he pledged, "Let me say this very slowly indeed. In fact, if you can, watch my lips: no selection either by examination or interview under a Labour government." This was one piece of Labour "baggage" still safely on board.

And it seemed that the battle lines became even clearer when John Major held out the possibility of "a grammar in every town" if the Tories were re-elected (a fatuous promise reiterated by William Hague this week). There was even talk of "The Great Grammar Election". But in the face of this Tory manoeuvre, Mr Blunkett made a tactical ditching of his baggage. By 1997 he was vowing not to "wage war" on selective schools. Instead he used a rather Tory-looking tactic and passed the buck to parents themselves: grammars would go if - and only if - parents desired it.

So this week local campaigners began the process of launching petitions which could, if they can collect 20 per cent support among affected parents, trigger ballots to end selection in individual schools. It is estimated that 50 schools at most will be affected, and very few of those will lose the ballot and find themselves forced to end selection. Not exactly what Crosland had in mind.

To some in the Labour movement - notably Lord Hattersley - this shift of policy smacks of a betrayal of principle. Hattersley has accused Blunkett of caving in to "a very substantial and very influential lobby". But the truth is far simpler. Blunkett is much more interested in getting things done for the vast majority of schoolchildren than in scoring points - and wasting time - with old shibboleths.

His vision is one not of eradicating grammars, but side-lining them. Comprehensive schools will be free to specialise and become centres of excellence in technology, languages, sport or the arts, and will be able to select a tenth of their intake based on aptitude. In addition, 34 inner-city schools are getting money to provide extra teaching for the brightest kids; if successful, this scheme will be expanded.

But while this shift in policy has irked the left (who see it as back- door selection) another shift - on the assisted places scheme - has equally outraged rightwingers. Back in July, Mr Justice Kay reprimanded Mr Blunkett and his department for breaking promises to 11- year-old Heather Begbie, whose "all-through" assisted place at a private school in Cambridge was scrapped at short notice. This despite the fact that only last year Mr Blunkett had written to an anxious grandparent that "Where there is provision of an 'all-through' school and where there had been a clear promise of a place through to the age of 18, we have agreed to honour that promise." Months later, Heather was told to find a new school. But despite the judge's disappointment at Mr Blunkett's excuses, he found that the minister had acted entirely legally in bending his promises. Challenged about the case in the Commons, Tony Blair backed his education secretary, emphasising that Mr Blunkett hadn't broken any "pre-election promises" - implying that promises made by Labour since May 1997 don't really count.

As someone who can simultaneously be a bogeyman for left and right, David Blunkett is one of the most valued members of Tony Blair's cabinet. Back in 1992, his roots grew towards the left of the party. He was the anti- euro, pro-Clause-IV friend of Bryan Gould, with strong links to municipal Labour thanks to his years leading Sheffield council. Seven years on, he is the man charged with delivering in Blair's key area of "edu-cation, education, education" - proving that, for Tony, actions speak louder than reputation.

For Blunkett to succeed in revolutionising education, he needs time, money and freedom. He talks of the need for four parliaments to see success in his programme: a bit optimistic, maybe, but unlike many such ministerial whinges, this one has a smattering of truth. It will be 2003 before the specialist schools are running in significant numbers; far longer before it's clear if the experiment is working. Also implicit in his demand for time is the request that Tony Blair leave him in his present post for the duration. For the foreseeable future, he'll get his way - expect Blunkett still to be Secretary of State for Education at the next election. (To move him would be seen as an implicit criticism, which could raise awkward questions.)

He also needs freedom from undue distractions. Already he is finding that fulfilling that election pledge on class sizes for five-, six- and seven-year-olds is skewing his budget away from more important areas, such as raising standards. This week he was forced to admit to rising class sizes at the secondary level. Doubtless Labour feel that this is a price worth paying to keep to the manifesto pledge; but it would have been better still if the department had been free to concentrate on matters more urgent than the headline- grabbing commitment. Gimmicky pledges like that probably won't have a place in the 2001 manifesto.

But - unsurprisingly - it is cash that Blunkett will need most over the coming years. Money to pay and attract the best teachers: money to pay off and boot out the worst. More money to buy new books and to repair old buildings. Already he has managed to get pounds 19bn over three years from Gordon Brown's tight fist, but battles between these two over lucre are sure to be a feature of the next few years. With any other minister, you'd expect Blair to back Brown over the spender every time. But Mr Blunkett's department is perhaps the only one where the Prime Minister might put a check on the Chancellor's skinflint instincts.

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