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Privatisation runs into opposition

LESS than a month in office and the re-elected Government is heading for stormy waters. The expansion of specialist and beacon schools is not universally popular. Nor is the rush to privatise public services like health and education.

Estelle Morris, the Education and Skills Secretary, lost no time in heralding her secondary education revolution with the creation of 400 more beacons and 79 more specialist schools. "Two-tier system," cried the critics. Not so, she said. "There is something special in this country about every single secondary school," she told the Commons. Few were convinced.

Phil Willis, the Lib Dem education spokesman, said the spread of specialist and single-faith schools advocated by the Government, when coupled with the increasing involvement of the private sector in the running of schools "amounts to little more than the dismantling of state education by a Labour government".

He was not the only one concerned. Backbenchers and heavy-weights like Roy Hattersley, former deputy Labour leader, were incensed. Lord Hattersley accused Tony Blair of developing policies that favoured an elite. Writing in The Observer, he called for MPs to "rise up" against what he described as Mr Blair's "coup d'etat" to overthrow the values of the Labour party. The general election victory had emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the right, he said.

(Just think, Roy Hattersley himself was judged well right of centre in his day. The centre has moved.) A report commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research threw another spanner into the works. The Blairite think tank raised some doubts about private sector involvement in health and education. There should be no ideological barriers to the extensive use of public private partnerships (PPPs) within the public sector, the lengthy report said, but it would be a mistake to see them as a panacea.

To the surprise of the Daily Telegraph, at least, the report "had the Prime Minister running for cover". He immediately arranged for a meeting in Downing Street for trade union leaders to allay fears over jobs and standards. Other commentators said ministers were taken aback by the ferocity of the opposition from the key unions.

The Financial Times dubbed the Government's attitude to using the private sector to improve public services as "a classic example of New Labour at its worst". Different departments spin their own message first one way then another. The paper says the result is confusion and a sense that the Government lacks the courage of its convictions - even when it has worked out what they are. Ouch!

In the meantime, Ms Morris launched yet more initiatives. She wants part-time school for 14-year-olds, and American-style graduation certificates and ceremonies for all 18 and 19-year-olds to encourage them to stay on after 16. Civil servants say the idea will not lead to more exams.Wait and see.

Diane Spencer

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