Blair seeks his defining moment

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
The Prime Minister says his education Bill represents the crux of what a Labour government is about - but will his own MPs back him? William Stewart reports

Months of horse-trading, debate, delay and speculation came to a head this week, as the Government finally turned its contentious education white paper proposals into a parliamentary Bill.

The 239-page document has no surprises. It includes the expected measures, tempered by last month's concessions to the Labour backbenchers who have been threatening revolt since publication of the white paper in October.

Tony Blair, who says the plans represent "the crux" of what a Labour government is about, now has less than a fortnight to find out whether the rebels will carry out their threat in a crunch vote at the second reading of the Bill on March 15.

The Prime Minister has told Labour MPs that it could be a defining moment and that he wants them to "capture the rhythm of government". "We want this Bill as a Labour Bill," he said.

But the signs are that he may still have to rely on the votes of the Conservatives, who this week confirmed their backing for the Bill.

Much of the Bill is uncontroversial, such as giving teachers a clear legal right to discipline pupils, tough new nutritional standards for school meals and merging Ofsted with other children's services inspectorates.

As expected there is no mention of "trust schools", the controversial state-funded independent schools that could be run by external organisations. Legally they already exist as foundation schools. The Bill will simply make achieving the status easier and give trusts more control over the appointment of governors.

The Government has, as promised, relented on its original plan to ban local authorities from creating new community schools. But despite backbench protests, the Education Secretary's veto over their creation survives.

Admissions remain contentious. The Bill meets the wishes of Labour backbenchers by banning interviews and requiring schools and local authorities to "act in accordance" with the school admissions code rather than just "having regard" to it. This could make a huge difference as the next code, like previous ones, is expected to say that admission policies should benefit all children and parents.

But the acid test will be how it is policed. Critics, such as the Children's Services Network, argue that by only giving local admissions forums, which lack resources, the power to report on admissions, the Bill does not do enough. An amendment is likely to be tabled which would give local authorities a duty to compile annual admissions reports.

It will be one of many coming from both sides of the House over the coming weeks. One leading Labour backbencher said he thought many of his colleagues would now vote with the Government on March 15, and try to change the Bill in its later stages.

But he predicted that a hardcore of between 50-60 rebels would hold out, leaving ministers dependent on Conservative support.

Mr Blair seemed almost resigned to that when he spoke to journalists on the eve of the Bill's publication. "My job is to give the leadership and put the arguments, and people have got to make up their minds whether they follow them or not," he said.

Even if his backbenchers do rally round, a huge question remains about the impact of reforms, which he originally described as "the next vital stage in one of the most radical and successful school reform programmes in the developed world".

Headteachers' leaders say their members are not interested in the concept of trust schools. And asked how many he expected to be created, Mr Blair could not be clear about the exact number.

The Prime Minister was talking about initial local authority scepticism when he said: "In a year's time, people will scratch their heads and say 'Well, what was that all that about'." But it may have been a more accurate prediction than he realised.


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The Bill in a nutshell

* "Trust" schools

State-funded independent schools will be easier to set up. They can be controlled by outside organisations, such as businesses or charities, which do not have to provide funding.

England only.

* Admissions

Schools must "act in accordance" with rather than "having regard" to the admissions code which is to be policed by local forums. Interviews and new academic selection banned. Easier for schools to introduce banded admissions.

England and Wales.

* Failing schools

Given a year to improve or face closure. Local authorities able to intervene quicker and force struggling schools to federate. England only.

* Disadvantaged families

Free transport to good schools. England only.

* Local authorities

Given strategic commissioning role with duties to ensure each child reaches their educational potential and to promote sustainable school travel. Able to create new community schools subject to Education Secretary's veto.

England only.

* Parents

Local authorities must consider their demands for new schools. Trust schools where sponsors appoint majority of governors must set up parent councils. England only.

* Behaviour

School staff given clear legal right to discipline pupils, use reasonable force and give detentions outside school hours; scope of parenting orders and contracts extended; parents required to take responsibility for pupils during first five days of exclusion.

England and Wales except on exclusions which is England only.

* Ofsted

Merged with other children's services inspectorates.

England only.

* School dinners

Tough new nutritional standards for food and drink.

England and Wales.

* 14-19 curriculum

Pupils get entitlement to new specialised diplomas.

England only.

The Bill: what they said

"Not only has the Government lost the confidence of some of its parliamentary party, but also a large section of the education community."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

"This Bill delivers a lethal injection to the comprehensive system of education. It will be dead within a couple of years apart from the odd twitch of the corpse."

Rob Wilson, Conservative education select committee member

"There has been no great interest in trust status from headteachers and it is unlikely that many schools will go down this route."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

"In pressing ahead with trust schools without any evidence that they will work, the Government is running with its eyes shut."

John Chowcat, general secretary of the Association of Professionals in Education and Children's Trusts

"Some parts of the Bill are very good, although much of the political debate has ignored them."

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

"The NSPCC is concerned the Bill will put children at risk by reducing local authority powers to co-operate with other service providers to improve children's well-being."

David Coulter, NSPCC education adviser

"Unless it tackles the inequality which arises from schools having different admissions policies then it won't be worth a row of beans."

Professor Tim Brighouse, London schools commissioner

"A missed opportunity rather than a defining moment."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers "A timid step in the right direction."

David Willetts, Conservative education secretary

"The time is right to move to the next level."

Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary

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