Did Blair exit hinge on academy deal?

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Outgoing premier was determined to safeguard cornerstone of education legacy in face of Brown opposition, according to think tank report

Tony Blair cut a secret deal with Gordon Brown as part of his Downing Street exit strategy to ensure the continuation of the academies programme after he had gone, a think tank has claimed.

The pact has echoes of the fabled 1994 Granita deal made in an Islington restaurant in the wake of the death of Labour Party leader John Smith. The two up-and-coming leaders are said to have come to an agreement that Mr Brown would give Mr Blair a clear run in the Labour Party leadership election and decided when Mr Blair would step aside and let Mr Brown take over.

A report published this week by the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange, entitled A Guide to School Choice Reform, claims that with Mr Brown's move to Number 10, there were fears that the academies programme would be scrapped. As Mr Blair negotiated his departure as prime minister in 1997, he made it increasingly clear that he considered the academies programme a cornerstone of his political legacy.

"Though Blair made continuing support for academies a condition of his retirement in favour of Gordon Brown, there was a widespread expectation following the latter's coronation that the programme was in jeopardy," the report claims.

"It was well known that Brown had always been sceptical about academies and that the Treasury had tried to block the Blair speech in which the target had been raised to 400," it says.

It goes on to state that before stepping down, Mr Blair attempted to turn every state school in the country into a foundation school, only for the move to be "watered down" in the 2006 Education and Inspections Act with the creation of trust schools.

"At one point officials seriously considered unilaterally switching all schools to foundation status simultaneously, even going as far as asking the churches (who run most voluntary-aided schools) for their support," the report states.

"A new 'trust' status was developed that was broadly similar to foundation status but does not have the same freedoms ... ".

Sir Cyril Taylor, a long-term government education adviser and former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, could not confirm whether the report of a deal between Mr Brown and Mr Blair was true but said the academies programme had certainly suffered following the change in personnel running the initiative.

"Lord Adonis is sorely missed; he made things happen," said Sir Cyril, speaking of the former junior schools minister. "Jim Knight (the schools minister) is a great fellow, but he kept all his responsibilities as well as taking on the academies programme, all the while holding on to a marginal seat."

However, Conor Ryan, who acted as education adviser to Mr Blair between 2005 and 2007, said: "In Tony Blair's last education speech he announced his goal of 400 academies, which was agreed with Gordon Brown. That number has been kept to and the programme has been accelerated."

Mr Ryan added: "I don't think Gordon Brown had strong views on education policy until he became Prime Minister."

Recipe for reform? pages 26-27

A Guide to School Choice Reform, www.policyexchange.org.ukpublications.

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