Caning row threatens Tory unity
Rows on the Conservative benches over corporal punishment are likely to dominate debate on legislation conceived by ministers as a pre-election measure to wrong-foot Labour.
The Government decision to allow its back-benchers a free vote on an amendment that would allow schools to insist parents sign an agreement permitting corporal punishment to be administered to their children has opened the way for warfare within its own ranks.
James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative back-bench education committee and for most of his career a Government loyalist, wants schools to be allowed the sanction of corporal punishment. And while his amendment will almost certainly be defeated by the combined votes of ministers and Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, Mr Pawsey has considerable support.
During the second reading of the Bill this week at least one MP was unwilling to stop at caning. According to Terry Dicks, Conservative MP for Hayes and Harlington, putting parents in prison might be a more effective means of ensuring children behaved in school.
However, the measure was strongly opposed by other Conservative MPs. Lady Olga Maitland, MP for Sutton and Cheam, denounced caning as degrading and demeaning for both pupil and teacher.
She said:"I find something abhorrent in a civilised society where differences are resolved by debate, yet here we have a situation where, as a last resort, schools are to be allowed to use the cane."
Such views were echoed by Andrew Rowe, Conservative MP for mid-Kent, who described the amendment as absurd. The most likely targets of corporal punishment would, he said, be those children who already have too much violence inflicted by their home backgrounds.
It can only have been irksome for ministers that the Bill's focus has shifted from the measures to allow schools to introduce greater selection and provide potential Labour embarrassment. The Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, twice went through a list of Labour MPs deemed to have taken advantage of "sound Conservative policies on choice".
There was Tony Blair, who has sent his son to a grant-maintained school; Harriet Harman, social security frontbencher, with a son at a grant-maintained grammar school; Peter Kilfoyle, deputy education spokesperson, with a child at a selective school; Dr Anthony Wright, MP for Cannock and Burntwood, with a child at a grant-maintained grammar school. Also in the roll call were Margaret Hodge, MP for Islington, and Jack Straw, Home Office frontbencher, deemed to have sent children across council boundaries.
In response to protests from Mr Kilfoyle, Mrs Shephard said she unreservedly withdrew her remarks about him, but repeated her claim that members of Labour's frontbench espoused Conservative policies for their own children, but opposed them for everybody else's.
In replying to the debate for the Government, Eric Forth, minister of state, warmed to the personal attack on the Opposition. He told MPs that as leader of Sheffield council, David Blunkett, leader of Labour's education team, had played a part in preventing schools from insisting that pupils wear uniform and he had voted in favour of the abolition of sixth-forms in secondary schools.
When pressed by Mr Blunkett to say how many members of the Cabinet send their children to state schools, Mr Forth suggested such a figure was irrelevant.
"We do not condemn independent schools, selective schools or grant-maintained schools. Labour members condemn these schools and yet they send their own children to them," he said.
The Bill was attacked by Mr Blunkett as an attempt by the Conservatives to return to an era where only an elite were educated to a high standard. The evidence from The Ridings school in Halifax contradicted the Government's claim that the presence of selective schools levers up standards across the board.
Labour's amendment calling for the Bill to go to a standing committee before being debated was defeated by 28 votes.