Minor victory for England's 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 Westminster government's white paper, it is a phrase that he may well return to.

The Assembly government has already rejected the white paper's key proposal of independent state schools run by trusts for Wales. And it is hard not to see the concessions offered this week to Westminster politicians 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 an option.

But are the changes - beefing up the admissions code and forums, making admission interviews illegal, and allowing local education authorities to set up community schools - really the "white flag" that some have described?

Unsuprisingly, the Government says not. Mr Blair said the trust school proposals remain, while Education Secretary Ruth Kelly described the concessions as safeguards which left the key elements intact.

They have a point. Much of the white paper has been left untouched and most of the changes offered, in a letter from Ms Kelly to the Commons' 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, and counter-balanced by the decision not to give any ground on the expansion of popular schools.

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. Ms Kelly's letter has addressed the rebel MPs' central concerns. Alan Whitehead, one of their organisers, said 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 approach, most of the rest will probably support it."

What difference will the concessions make? Not much, on trust schools.

Because, as John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has repeatedly said, most heads will ignore the option.

leader 22, international 20

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