Tory candidate attempts to defuse state schools row in Eastleigh byelection

Maria Hutchings says she was not referring to Hampshire when she said schools not good enough for wannabe surgeon son

The Conservative candidate in the Eastleigh byelection has tried to defuse a row about education by claiming she was not talking about Hampshire when she suggested that state schools were not good enough for her son.

Maria Hutchings has been embroiled in controversy after she apparently claimed that her son's ambition to become a surgeon would be thwarted if he went to a state school. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said Hutchings had insulted "every pupil and teacher at our state schools", while a group of surgeons and GPs who had been state-educated wrote an open letter claiming they were living proof she was wrong.

But while out campaigning with the home secretary, Theresa May, on Monday, Hutchings insisted her comments had been misinterpreted.

She told the Guardian: "When I spoke about my son's education I was talking about when he was five years old and I was living in another area."

Hutchings, who lived in Essex before moving to Hampshire five years ago, said the child was "gifted" and she visited four local schools, none of which had measures in place to cater for such children. She said: "We have to find the right education for our children. The standard of schooling here is excellent. I believe we all have to make the right choice for our children."

The candidate added that she, her husband and two of her four children had all gone to state schools while her youngest daughter was on the waiting list for two state schools in Eastleigh.

It is not the first time during the campaign that Hutchings has claimed she has been misquoted or misinterpreted. She has already had to defend herself over alleged remarks made during the 2005 general election campaign about refugees, gay people and foxes. She has also created headlines by saying she would have voted against gay marriage and would vote for leaving the EU if there was a referendum now.

Asked about the state education row, May said: "Parents will always have to make decisions for themselves over what is right for their children. What we want to see across the whole state sector is ensuring we are providing the education that is right for every child."

When asked whether Hutchings was a "franchise candidate" – campaigning as a Tory but choosing which of the party's policies she supported – May said: "Maria is not a professional politician, she is somebody who has lived and campaigned for local people for a number of years. She will campaign for local people, she will fight for local people."

The home secretary added that a vote for Hutchings showed support for David Cameron's policies such as "controlling immigration, reforming welfare and standing up for Britain in Europe". Getting such messages over is important for the Tories in Eastleigh, where Ukip is campaigning strongly.

Hutchings' claim that she was misinterpreted came as Labour organised the first stunt of the campaign, dressing up two activists in surgeons' green scrubs, and handing out leaflets in which they claimed: "Cameron's rightwing candidate has sensationally revealed the Tories' true colours by attacking Eastleigh's local state schools."

The leaflet continued: "This is an insult to our young people and teachers who work so hard and to the parents and community who support them."

Passersby were encouraged to sign a letter to Hutchings that stated: "You seem to be saying that our state schools are good enough for our kids but not for yours."

Her remarks were described by Kevin Brennan, the shadow minister for schools, as "extraordinary".

The Labour's candidate, the writer and long-term activist John O'Farrell, said he had sent his children to a state school – and had been chair of the governors there for eight years.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were turning their attention to the Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council. Their candidate, Mike Thornton, presented the authority with an "invoice for wasteful spending", claiming it had frittered away millions on advertising, office furniture and consultancy fees.

Contributor

Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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