New Concession over Schools as Blair Faces Key Test of Authority

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

New Concession over Schools as Blair Faces Key Test of Authority


Byline: JOE MURPHY

TONY BLAIR is set to make a further concession to Labour MPs next week in a bid to safeguard his education reforms.

The Government will publish the long-awaited Education Bill on Tuesday and launch an intensive threeweek drive to whip backbenchers into line. Labour whips admit that the second reading vote in mid-March has become a test of whether the Prime Minister's personal authority is waning - with a real danger that Mr Blair will be mortally wounded if his reform package is defeated.

Speculation is rife that Mr Blair has sanctioned a key concession over proposals to give Education Secretary Ruth Kelly a veto when local authorities try to build new comprehensives. The veto issue is seen as highly significant by one large subgroup of the 96 rebel Labour MPs, giving Mr Blair a chance to split the dissidents.

The Education Department has already hinted it might give ground by pledging that the veto would only be used on local authorities whose existing schools have records of failure. But the group of MPs who wrote an alternative White Paper backing comprehensive ideals is pressing for the veto to be abandoned altogether.

A briefing note circulated privately to MPs by rebel leaders said the veto "must change". It stated: "We hope this issue can be resolved before the Education Bill is published."

The main Commons vote is expected to be held in the middle of next month and some concessions are likely to be held back until the last minute to develop a sense of momentum.

The reforms were dealt a blow by two reports this week. One, by experts at the London School of Economics, said giving parents more choice would fail to lever up standards enough but "may exacerbate inequalities".

Another report, by education watchdog Ofsted, condemned standards at one of Mr Blair's multimillion-pound city academy schools as "exceptionally low". It graded the sixth form at the [pounds sterling]26million flagship school in Peckham as "inadequate".

Tory education spokesman David Willetts repeated his party's offer to back the Bill - but said support would be withdrawn if Mr Blair gave away too many concessions. "If we think on balance the Bill will give schools more freedom to improve standards, we will be inclined to back it," he said.

Liberal Democrat Ed Davey called for a complete rethink. He said the Government's blueprint would encourage schools to push out pupils with difficulties or disadvantages and proposed extra funding for those that take on struggling pupils. …

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