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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Why the Tory selective school shift?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

So who have the real Blairite education policies nowadays - Gordon Brown and his supporters or, perhaps, David Cameron's Conservatives?

A classroom
Education is key battleground

It is a question MPs on both sides of the Commons are once again pondering after the Tories ripped up their traditional support for grammar schools and selection and pledged to take Mr Blair's city academies project even further.

The party's education spokesman David Willetts even boasted he was more committed to the programme than the chancellor and in-coming Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

And Mr Cameron said he wanted to put "rocket boosters" under the academies policy which, he claimed, were an extension of the Tories' old city technology colleges.

In a significant shift in official Tory thinking, he said selection at 11 did not help less well-off children and parents did not want their children "divided into sheep and goats at 11".

The debate over a few grammar schools was "pointless" because it was impossible to build new ones anyway and, in a shot across the bows of his rebels, he added: "and I won't have it".

Limited role

It all comes the day after education secretary and deputy Labour leadership contender Alan Johnson said he backed further academies, but with a "limit" of 400 in total.

There had been suggestions that Mr Brown was not overly keen on academies, but he said on Tuesday he backed the current programme. It remains unclear whether he would extend it.

The Conservative move means the leaders in both parties have now upset their more traditional elements.

Left-wing Labour MPs are bitterly opposed to the Blair reforms which allows private sponsors to invest in schools which are not under the control of local authorities.

David Willetts
Mr Willetts says he would go further than Brown

They see it as creeping privatisation of education - and believed, or hoped, Mr Brown might just share their views.

As for the Tories, traditionalists are seething at what they believe is another attempt to abandon the party's core principles in an attempt to move onto a Blairite agenda.

As a result, Mr Cameron is facing some severe criticisms for abandoning grammar schools, which have previously won support of shadow ministers including frontbencher David Davis. Many senior Tories like Margaret Thatcher and Michael Howard went to grammar schools.

Policy shift

Mr Cameron - who, like many on his front bench went to a public school - may not be too bothered by a rift which continues his efforts to change the image of the party.

He said last year there would be no return to the eleven plus or more grammar schools, but his education spokesman David Willetts has now gone further and made clear that he believes times have changed.

He argues that grammar schools, or any form of selection by ability, no longer offer a ladder for children from less well off backgrounds.

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown supports existing academies programme

He basically suggests that middle class parents can work the system and prepare their children in such a way that they can get most grammar school places - to the detriment of bright children from poorer backgrounds.

But there are clearly political elements to this radical policy shift, beyond Cameron's modernisation of the party.

Most obviously it plays into the Tory slogan that Mr Brown is an Old Labour recidivist and the "roadblock to reforms" put forward by Tony Blair.

Own terms

It also seeks to shut down a possible area for dispute between the two parties in the run up to the election.

This makes it easier for the Tories to choose the battleground on their own terms - a tactic often employed by New Labour.

They must also believe the policy has found favour with the electorate, something that many teachers and Labour MPs believe is far from proven.

It seems that Mr Blair will see his school legacy as being secure - although it is a fair bet that this is not the way he would have imagined or hoped it to happen.

Tories to reject grammar schools
16 May 07 |  UK Politics
Brown pledges academy support
15 May 07 |  Education
Academy call for private schools
14 May 07 |  Education
Children 'do better in grammars'
09 Apr 07 |  Education
No more grammars, Tories pledge
09 Jan 06 |  Education

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