So, who wants to be a trust school?

Mike Baker

The political furore over the white paper may be a fuss over nothing, argues Mike Baker - as heads see no reason to convert to Blair and Kelly's new breed of school.

Media coverage of education always moves on to a different, not necessarily higher, level when the political correspondents suddenly take an interest in it.

That happened this past week. As one Whitehall insider put it, the political hacks have smelled blood and are finding out all sorts of new things about education policy.

It was government "spin" that started it. Dismayed by Labour MPs' reaction to last month's white paper, Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair launched a good copbad cop campaign to try to win them round.

The Education Secretary stressed everything the reforms would not do: no selection, no preferential funding, and no charter for the middle-classes.

By contrast, the Prime Minister saw the reforms as a "once in a generation"

chance to end the "deadening uniformity" of the comprehensive system.

No wonder the Press seized on this as a sign of confusion in government.

Coming so soon after the Government's reverse over the Terrorism Bill, journalists scented a second Commons defeat. It became front-page news. The Independent, and several other newspapers, said "more than 100" Labour MPs were considering rebelling. The Sunday Times reported Mr Blair's education speech as a "new bid to stop schools revolt" and the Daily Express had "Blair braced for rebellion on education".

What makes this row rather odd is that headteachers say the controversial plans for trust schools will probably come to very little anyway. That is because most see no attraction in going through the upheaval of becoming one. They say they already have all the freedoms this offers through the existing specialist or foundation status and would not relish dealing with an external board of trustees.

The white paper resembles Dr Doolittle's "push-me-pull-you": it has the air of compromise. It seems Downing Street wanted something more radical, perhaps allowing for-profit companies to run state schools as in the Swedish model - pointedly praised in Mr Blair's introduction to the White Paper.

But fear of the political consequences meant that, in the end, the trust schools proposal was not so radical, but the original framework and rhetoric remained. This week's speeches continued this confusion.

While Ruth Kelly stressed continuity ("no return to selection by ability by the front door, the back door, or any other door"), the Prime Minister was seen by the Sun as turning this into a confidence issue: "Blair warned Labour school rebels they could bankrupt Britain and lose the next general election".

Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph described it as like "a couple in bed when each tries to pull the sheet off the other". He said Labour could not decide whether trust schools were: a) autonomous and able to shape their own curriculum and meet parental demand; or b) part of the "local authority family of schools" following the national curriculum and abiding by the national code on admissions.

In the Guardian, Estelle Morris, former education secretary, called the plans over-hyped as many of the freedoms offered already exist - but added that the "new freedoms are precisely those most likely to hold back on social progress".

Most newspapers saw the reforms as re-opening old Labour party wounds over selection and the role of local government.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer said it was "personal" for many Labour MPs and, for John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, it was all about a bike.

According to him, Mr Prescott bitterly opposes selection because his brother got a new bicycle for passing the 11-plus, while he failed and was denied one.

Tension over school reform has been simmering a long time. In The Spin Doctor's Diary, former Downing Street insider Lance Price quotes Mr Blair as frequently expressing frustration with the timidity of school reform. As early as 1998 Mr Blair said that, while approving of what the department for education was doing, he wanted "five helpings of that". In 1999, the Prime Minister reportedly "alarmed and depressed" his advisers by "suggesting the Government should change direction dramatically on health and education".

With these tensions in government, it is little wonder that cracks are showing in the Labour party. If this week's offensive by the Blair and Kelly duo was meant to reassure backbenchers, it seems to have failed.

Platform 21

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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