The Education Secretary faces a tough year as Labour backbenchers square up for a fight over the Prime Minister's reforms. Mike Baker reports
If the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, believes in New Year resolutions she may resolve to build bridges with Labour's backbench MPs. If not, 2006 promises to be her annus horribilis. The toughest challenge will come when she tries to steer the Education Bill through the Commons. Labour's backbenchers are on a mutinous course and her task has not been helped by David Cameron wishing her a fair wind.
A pre-Christmas farewell party for the permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Skills, David Normington, highlighted the problems ahead. The guests included former Secretaries of State, Lady Estelle Morris and David Blunkett, and members of the Education Select Committee. Despite the bonhomie, the tensions surrounding the proposed school reforms were apparent. That very afternoon, Baroness Morris had joined a large number of Labour MPs to publish an alternative Education Bill. Its 13 recommendations would, in ministers' view, rip the heart out of the Government's reforms. The official line is that there can be no compromise, although the temporary postponement of the revised code of practice on admissions may suggest some room for manoeuvre.
David Blunkett has not yet swung behind the rebels but, if he does, Ms Kelly will be caught between the rock of a very powerful group of Labour rebels and the hard place of the Prime Minister's rhetoric on radical and "irreversible" reform. And she will hope that David Bell, the former chief inspector who has become her permanent secretary at the DfES, will prove a valuable ally.
Meanwhile the Education Select Committee is rushing through an inquiry into the reforms and promises a report before the second reading of the Bill. A critical verdict will intensify the Government's woes. Looking ahead to the New Year, teachers' leaders continue to promise their opposition to the reforms. David Cameron's decision to back trust schools was astute parliamentary tactics but he can also claim the idea is rooted in the earlier Tory policy of encouraging schools to opt out of council control as grant maintained schools. The Government's description of trust schools as "independent state schools" is an exact echo of the phrase used by Lady Thatcher when speaking about GM schools in the 1980s. Moreover, her adviser Lord Griffiths even proposed the transfer of all schools that had not opted out into the management of special trusts. Thatcher hoped this would strip local education authorities of their powers "leaving them with a monitoring and advisory role". Or, as the white paper puts it, LEAs will become "commissioners of services and champions of the users". The remarkable similarity of Blair's and Thatcher's language over school reform has certainly added to the mistrust Labour MPs have of the reforms. The focus of their concern is pupil selection. In Cabinet, the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, battled to secure statutory backing for the code of practice on admissions. So far, the Government has resisted that. It now looks as if Ms Kelly must play chicken with her backbenchers to see who blinks first.
It is not long since Labour MPs rebelled over the Bill introducing university top-up fees. Although that Bill squeaked through, Ms Kelly will be watching anxiously to see the impact on student demand. The first set of 2006 admissions figures in mid-October sounded an early warning: registering a fall of just over 2 per cent in applications from British-based students. Some universities are now reported to have had drops of more than 10 per cent.
Further education should prove less controversial, but Ms Kelly still faces challenges. The Foster review plan to turn colleges into skills factories means a difficult transition for those who believe in a less utilitarian role. Ms Kelly must also deliver her promise to close the funding gap between colleges and school sixth forms.
Meanwhile, Jim Rose's final report on reading is due in the spring. Ms Kelly's acceptance of his interim proposal for greater emphasis on synthetic phonics won plaudits from the right-wing press, but teachers will be angry if they are forced to rely exclusively on phonics.
Finally, the Government must deliver its promise to introduce post qualification admissions to universities. A departmental task force is grappling with the detail, but leading universities are now blowing cold. A compromise has been suggested which could lead to only about 15 per cent of places being reserved for PQA. Universities are divided over this and other groups, like the Association of School and College Leaders, will be upset if Ms Kelly fails to introduce full-blown PQA from 2008.
All in all, then, the toughest of years lies ahead for Ms Kelly. Perhaps more than any other Secretary of State, she holds the key to the success or otherwise of what could be Tony Blair's final full year in office.
Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent