MPs give Kelly an end-of-term grilling

Ruth Kelly endured a bruising end of term as her school reform proposals came under further fire from Labour's big guns and her department was forced into an embarrassing retreat over languages.

The Education Secretary's week began badly as John Prescott weighed into the row over her white paper proposals to give state schools greater independence. The Deputy Prime Minister said he feared they would lead to a two-tier system that would disadvantage pupils from poorer backgrounds.

"I'm not totally convinced major reform is necessary," he told the Sunday Telegraph.

Ms Kelly repudiated his comments during a gruelling two-and-a-half-hour appearance before the education select committee: "I don't agree with him.

I think this is a good set of proposals that will help the most disadvantaged children in the most disadvantaged areas."

Barry Sheerman, committee chairman, reprimanded Ms Kelly for an "extraordinarily badly written piece of work". "If I were still in university I'd say, 'There's some good stuff in this but go away and give it more shape and form'," said the former lecturer.

Ms Kelly did not give a direct answer when asked about media reports that the Prime Minister was preparing to water down the proposals, saying only that she believed that people were changing their minds in their favour.

But there is a growing number of Labour backbenchers, now thought to be around 70, who have signed up to alternative plans.

Ms Kelly gave an indication of government tactics over the forthcoming Bill by trying to play down the significance of the proposals, originally hyped in the press as a radical change to the schools system.

"There are some people who think that trust schools are a brand new category of school," she said. In fact the trust schools were just taking the system as it was and adding new flexibility, she told MPs.

But Mr Sheerman told her she had been hoisted on her own hyperbole. "I have to say to you that the concept of creating a new category (of school) did not come from this committee, it didn't come from me, it came from the Government."

There was more embarrassment for Ms Kelly's department when it announced that secondary schools are being told to ensure at least half of their pupils take languages after 14. Last year its decision to stop compelling all secondary pupils to study a language up to GCSE or equivalent, led to a dramatic 14 per cent drop in entries for French and German GCSEs.

And to add to Ms Kelly's woes, signs are that industrial action over national changes to the pay of senior staff will escalate in the new year.

The National Union of Teachers Action has voted for action in a further seven schools.

Teachers at Hipperholme and Lightcliffe in Halifax, Plumstead Manor in Greenwich, south London, Shaftesbury primary in Newham, east London, and Northcliffe, Doncaster, where action took place last week, are threatening further one-day strikes unless agreement can be reached.

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