Let battle recommence

24 Mar 06
FIONA MILLAR | Whatever happened to the Education Bill? Only a few weeks ago, it was the most challenging issue facing Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Whatever happened to the Education Bill? Only a few weeks ago, it was the most challenging issue facing Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Now, buried under the weight of election-funding sleaze, it is a case of temporarily forgotten, but not gone.

The Education and Inspections Bill 2006, which paved the way for independent trust schools run by ‘external partners’, survived its second reading, thanks to Tory votes. But this was only the start of a long parliamentary process, which might last until November when the Bill is expected to receive royal assent.

Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of the wider political current, in which Labour party fortunes in local elections and the prime minister’s own future are at stake, will continue to be linked to this contentious piece of legislation.

Fifty-two Labour MPs voted against the Bill’s second reading; 25 abstained. Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson branded this as a throwback to ‘the Bennery of the early 1980s, which derailed the Labour party’.

A closer look at the facts suggests he is wrong. Many of the rebel MPs do not hail from the hard Left of the party. More importantly, after four months of cajoling, wheedling, clarification and concessions by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, only about 20 of the original ‘alternative white paper’ group gave in.

Several of those, notably MPs Angela Eagle, Martin Salter and former education secretary Baroness Morris, did so on the condition that there would be further concessions during the Bill’s committee stage.

But how likely is this and what form will these mooted concessions take? Kelly’s veto on new community schools will certainly come under close scrutiny.

The original white paper stated that there would be ‘no more community schools, primary or secondary’. This was begrudgingly amended to allow local authorities to enter into a ‘competition’ for a new school if parents wanted it.

But the secretary of state will still be allowed to veto this on the basis of a local authority’s performance and existing ‘diversity’ in the local area.

So the system will be heavily weighted against community schools and in favour of ‘external partners’, who apparently do not have to demonstrate any previous successful educational experience.

Then there is the current half-hearted compromise on admissions. Trust schools will be given more freedom to choose which pupils they admit, but now will have to ‘act in accordance’ with a new code of practice , rather than simply ‘have regard’ to it. New selection by ability or interview will be ruled out.

However, the new code won’t be published until after the Bill becomes law. Existing selection by ability (seen in 25% of local authorities) will continue, as will many other covert forms of selection. And the role of local authorities in monitoring fair access to the most popular schools, especially for the most disadvantaged, is still too vague.

Finally, trust schools. Who is going to run them? Will there be a list of suitable ‘external partners’? More importantly, will some people be deemed unsuitable?

Will sponsors really be allowed to appoint the majority of a trust school’s governing body? Or can the rebels push through an amendment enforcing more local democracy in this area?

If the Tories support the Bill from now until the end of November, Labour amendments might well be defeated. But both the government and the PM’s standing have been shaken by the ‘cash for peerages’ affair; there is deep disquiet about the reliance on Tory support among many in Labour, and some tactical bridge-building may be necessary.

The Conservatives have already hinted that they have a few amendments ready to restore the original white paper’s ‘radicalism’.

But further changes in either direction could lead to the Tories or a wider group of Labour MPs withdrawing support at the third reading. This could happen in the midst of a more cut-throat political climate, with Tory leader David Cameron under pressure from his own side to deal a killer blow to Blair’s weakened administration.

A recent poll showed that many voters are doubtful that the Bill will lead to better schools. Above all, they are confused about what the proposals will mean in practice.

Who can blame them? It is hard to explain why a Labour government should find itself relying on Tory support to push through proposals similar to those it pledged to abolish in its landslide victory back in 1997.

Labour rebel MP David Taylor summed it up when he asked the prime minister whether it was really the ‘politics of Lewis Carroll’.

Whatever the looking glass holds, there is a lot at stake for our children. The battle has only just begun.

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