On the tightrope towards reform

Even the Prime Minister admits that he is walking a high-wire in the bid to push his controversial proposals through Parliament. William Stewart and Joseph Lee report

Ruth Kelly may have saved her political skin by last week's statement on the vetting of sex offenders - but as the subsequent days have proved, her troubles are far from over as opponents to her school reforms have intensified their battle.

On Monday, Tony Blair, came out fighting on the Education Secretary's behalf, deploying the biggest gun in his armoury - himself. Defiant was the word most used to described the Prime Minister as he used his monthly press conference to describe the proposed legislation that is splitting his party as fundamental.

"It is about everything to do with the politics of the Government, what we think, how we feel, what is our basic position," he said. "I am not intending to lose it. But it is a bit of a high-wire act at the moment, I accept that because I have got significant numbers of my own side who are against it."

But he showed few signs of granting concessions, and said he could not agree to make the admissions code statutory.

The main bone of contention for the Labour rebels is the creation of trust schools, which would be independent of local authorities, because they believe the new schools would lead to covert selection.

Chancellor Gordon Brown was also wheeled out to back the beleaguered Ms Kelly. He pledged to back the reforms and said he would personally try to persuade the dissenters.

"We cannot allow schools to tolerate a culture of second-best or failure.

Reform, reform and reform is our message," he said in an article in The Sun newspaper.

Meanwhile, the Tories mischievously portrayed themselves as Mr Blair's friends on the issue. The point was underlined when, despite hours of meetings, Tory members of the Commons education select committee failed to agree a common line with Labour and Lib-Dem colleagues this week and were expected to issue their own minority report.

The main report was expected to recommend that a new national admissions code, outlawing selection or admissions interviews, should be policed by local authorities. It was also expected to call for heavy restrictions on the assets that can be handed over to trust schools, and for local authorities to be allowed to set up community schools, something the white paper rules out.

Most notably, it was to recommend that town halls set benchmarks on every secondary for the admission of pupils eligible for free school meals or with families on working tax credit.

The Sutton Trust, an education charity, agreed and increased pressure on the Government this week with research showing that comprehensive schools which have control over their admissions were not taking their fair share of disadvantaged pupils.

Conservative select committee members attacked the idea of benchmarks as "Stalinist social engineering" and were expected to produce a report endorsing the main points in the original white paper.

Mr Blair said he was relaxed about the agreement of his opponents and welcomed the Tories' shift away from selection, prompting speculation that he was prepared to rely on Conservative support to get the Education Bill, expected to be published next month, through Parliament.

Rebel Labour MP David Chaytor said Mr Blair's hardline rhetoric was unfortunate. But there is a belief among Labour backbenchers that the Government is more prepared to compromise than it will admit in public.

One leading rebel told The TES that despite the tough talk, relations with ministers were cordial.

"The mood music you hear in public and that going on behind the scenes is rather different," he said.

The rebels' case was bolstered by research from Southampton and Essex universities which found that most social segregation in England was due to state schools rather than private ones.

The study also warned that greater selection in admissions would lead to increased class segregation. The Government's insistence that allowing schools to set admissions policies would not lead to selection was given short shrift at a packed anti-white paper rally in Parliament attended by an array of Labour big-hitters, including Neil Kinnock, Estelle Morris and Alastair Campbell.

Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader broke his long record of loyalty to Mr Blair by warning that trust schools were an "elephant trap" for the Government.

Lady Morris, former education secretary, said: "How come the Labour government is about to create a system where admissions are so complicated that we have got to give (parents) choice advisers?"

But an anti-white paper demonstration held outside City and Islington college, in north London, on Tuesday was less successful as protesters had to return to lessons before Ms Kelly turned up.

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

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