Estelle enters the lions' den ... but who is doing the savaging?

Warwick Mansell

IT was Estelle Morris's first Commons education questions session as Secretary of State - but not even her own side was prepared to give her an easy ride.

First came a savage attack from Gordon Prentice, fearless Labour MP for Pendle, on the party's specialist schools policy.

"If we are to have specialist schools, I am rather attracted to the Liberal Democrat policy which is to make all schools special schools. We could then call them comprehensives," he said to gasps, and some cheers. But which side of the house were they coming from?

Phil Willis, Lib Dem education spokesman, could scarcely believe his luck. He welcomed Mr Prentice as "the first member to cross the floor this Parliament". He said Labour's specialist policy would introduce McDonald's-style franchising into education.

But more was to come. Mr Prentice then laid into Estelle's deputy Stephen Timms' willingness to countenance companies running individual school departments. Where had the idea come from, demanded Mr Prentice, who said it had not been mentioned in Labour's national policy forum, on which he sits. "If we are going to get bizarre suggestions brought forward, at least the Government could tell us who was responsible," he barked.

Ms Morris's response, that the Government would not force any headteacher to bring in a private firm, was barely adequate. But the backbenchers were not finished.

Margaret Hodge was forced on the defensive by George Howarth, sacked last month as a junior Northern Ireland minister, who claimed tuition fees put sixth-formers off university. And Ivan Lewis, new 14-19 minister, heard another Labour member, Caroline Flint, question the impact of AS-levels on schools' extra-curricular provision. Then there were cries of disbelief as Mr Lewis, making his dispatch box debut, managed to dismiss this year's bungled AS launch as "some teething problems".

Theresa May, shadow education spokeswoman, said that teachers and pupils would be outraged by his complacency. "They feel that, over the past year, far from some teething problems, they have had every single tooth drawn out slowly without anaesthetic."

The session lasted barely 45 minutes, but you could almost hear the new front bench team sigh with relief as it finished. It was all a far cry from two months ago when, during the last of these sessions, Ms Morris's predecessor David Blunkett had felt confident enough to boast of the easy ride he was getting from opposition MPs.

That was before the election. Having helped Tony Blair secure his cherished second term, the signs are that many Labour backbenchers have now had enough, and that the Government's education record is to be put under scrutiny as never before.

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Warwick Mansell

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