Kelly wins over all but diehard rebels

10th February 2006 at 00:00
In September Tony Blair said: "Every time I've introduced a reform I wish in retrospect I'd gone further." After this week's reponse to critics of the white paper it is a phrase that he may well return to.

It is hard not to see the concessions offered this week as a setback for a man who once claimed he had no reverse gear. In the end, with 96 Labour backbenchers threatening rebellion, he had little choice. Relying on Conservative support for the education Bill, expected to be published next week, was never really an option.

But are the changes really the "white flag" that some have described? Does Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, the target of an egg thrown by a RealFathers4Justice campaigner this week, now have political egg on her face?

Unsurprisingly the Government says not. Mr Blair said the trust school proposals at the heart of the white paper remain. It is a point he emphasised with a glitzy Number 10 reception for potential sponsors yesterday.

It is true that much of the white paper is untouched and most of the changes offered, in a letter from Ms Kelly to the education select committee, could legitimately be seen as tweaks.

The one big exception is the U-turn on allowing local authorities to set up new community schools. But this is heavily qualified - they can only do so on the say-so of the Education Secretary - and, it could be argued, counter-balanced by the decision not to give any ground on allowing popular schools to expand.

In a less febrile atmosphere the concessions could have been slipped through with little fuss. But the Government's rhetoric over the past few months has made that impossible. It was Downing Street spin that created the rebellion by portraying what are in many ways quite cautious proposals as radical. Now, by seeming to refuse any compromise, Mr Blair's "high-wire act" has ensured the concessions are portrayed as a major climb-down.

Ms Kelly's letter sought to address the rebel MPs' central concerns. Alan Whitehead, one of their organisers, told The TES he felt about 80 per cent of their demands had been met.

"I suspect there are probably 20 to 30 people who probably don't want anything to do with the Bill," he said. "But with the right clarification and the right approach to the Bill most of the rest will probably be able to say 'Yes, we can support it'." Some rebels' concerns may be difficult to accommodate: Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, said he was not inclined to vote for a Bill that did not scrap grammar schools. Ms Kelly has another chance to convince them in a speech in Blackpool tomorrow, at the Labour party spring conference.

What difference will the concessions make? Philip Hunter, chief schools adjudicator, is pleased that ministers have followed his advice and strengthened local forums' role in policing admissions. "It will provide a very robust system," he said.

Mr Hunter also thinks that a new law on admissions interviews should stop the small number of schools that still use them, such as the London Oratory where Mr Blair sent two of his children, continuing the practice.

The Government has conceded minimal ground on trust schools. Its concessions, such as they are, (see box) are unlikely to make much difference: as John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has repeatedly said, most heads will not want to convert to trust school status.

His point was reinforced this week when government figures revealed that only 51 schools have applied for foundation status in the past five years despite the chance of freedoms almost identical to those of trust schools.

Meanwhile an Audit Commission survey of 8,000 heads revealed that 91 per cent valued the support of local authorities.


INTERNATIONAL 20, opinion 23 FE Focus 7

White paper concessions

* Schools and other admissions authorities must "act in accordance" rather than having "regard" to the admissions code

* Admissions interviews to be made illegal

* Beefed-up local admissions forums, with school and council representatives, to police admissions, ensuring schools comply with code

* Local authorities can set up new community schools - but only if the Education Secretary decides such a proposal has "merit"

* Trust schools can change trust or become a foundation school if they are dissatisfied with their trust's performance

* Trust or foundation schools wishing to sell non-playing field land, must inform the local authority which can object or claim a share of the proceeds

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