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Caneless into the dawn of a new era;Education bill

MPs got rid of corporal punishment this week, reports Frances Rafferty

The sun rose on bleary-eyed MPs who had sat through the night in a marathon debate on the School Standards and Framework Bill, voting to abolish caning in private schools.

The proceedings started innocently enough with the usual handful of MPs taking the Bill through its second day of report. The Conservatives wanted foundation and church schools to have the right to determine their own pay and conditions for teachers. If it was thought a good idea for education action zones, why not elsewhere? The Government was not convinced.

Stephen Dorrell, Conservative education spokesman, asked: "Why can the Oratory School exemption not apply to all schools of the kind?" The Oratory, where Tony Blair sends his son, is one of just two in the country which does not follow the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document - and will be allowed to continue the practice.

The Opposition also attempted to give rural schools greater protection from closure. Angela Browning, Conservative education spokeswoman, said school standards minister Stephen Byers had, just before the Countryside March, given all sorts of promises to the rural lobby, which he now had to unpick. Mr Byers said he had written to local authorities saying geography must be taken into account before they close rural schools.

Then Tory Ann Widdecombe waded in, with all but the blessing of the Pope behind her. Although she had not consulted the Vatican on the Government's class size policy, she had been to high authorities. She said the Government had pulled the wool over the eyes of the churches.

"If children are denied admission to the nearest Roman Catholic or Church of England school because class sizes are too big, will other denominational places be created or will surplus secular places have to be filled first?" she asked.

Ministers said the churches fully supported the policy of class sizes of 30 and under for infants.

It was the debate on grammar schools that set the scene for the long night ahead. Mr Dorrell started the three-hour marathon with amendments to undermine the Government's plans for ballots to end grammar schools.

He said it was a nonsense that parents in a feeder primary could vote in a ballot but, in some cases, parents with a child in the school would not. The parents of girls in a mixed feeder school would also determine the end of a boys' grammar school. Hundreds of years of tradition would be ended in one fell swoop, he said.

Graham Brady, MP for Sale and West, spoke for more than half an hour defending the grammar schools in his constituency. He was then joined by the post-supper posse. John "Son of Polecat" Bercow, the Buckinghamshire MP seen as the political heir of Norman Tebbit, got the bit between his teeth. Unlike many of the Labour front bench, he said, he did not have the privilege of a grammar-school education. "It was my dubious privilege to go to a mid-market comprehensive school in Finchley..." Grammar schools, he said, were beacons of excellence.

A free vote to end caning was won by 211 to 15. Mrs Browning said she could not support the amendment: "Yes I will declare an interest. I have slapped a lot of little legs and I can see a lot of little legs that need slapping tonight."

With luck, not those of Mr Dorrell - after all, it was his birthday.

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