Blair faces new revolt over education reforms

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is facing a fresh onslaught from Labour backbenchers as MPs prepare for a renewed battle over his controversial education reforms.

Yesterday Baroness Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, strongly criticised proposals to allow private donors to secure control of new "trust" schools, warning: "We cannot have wealthy men coming in and buying control of schools."

Baroness Morris is a leading member of a large group of normally loyal Labour MPs who voted for the legislation to set up the new wave of self-governing trusts when it first came to the Commons.

But many have now warned that they may join the rebels unless the Government makes major concessions.

The group, who met secretly earlier this week, have confirmed that they want to be sure that the rules governing schools admissions are fair, that trust schools are strictly regulated, and that local councils have the same right as independent trusts to put up proposals for new schools.

Other Labour MPs will attempt to hand parents a veto over plans by forcing schools to hold a ballot before applying for trust status.

And Labour left-wingers warned that opposition to the Education and Inspection Bill was undiminished and predicted a repeat of the 52-strong rebellion earlier this year that left Mr Blair relying on Tory votes to clear the Bill's first hurdle in the Commons.

They warned that MPs remained opposed to the fundamental "direction of travel" of the plans, warning that it would open up state education to the private sector like never before. MPs will debate the Bill for a second time on Tuesday when it has its crucial detailed report stage and third reading before passing to the House of Lords.

But yesterday Ms Morris voiced continuing disquiet over the measure. She told the Parliamentary Monitor magazine: "The problem is that I think there are aspirations on the party of Number 10 to go further than the Bill; that is what I mean by the direction and that is what my worry has been."

She insisted that she did not have a problem with private sector involvement in education, but warned: "What I do have a problem with is the notion that giving £2m for example buys you control of the school.

"The argument is not about individuals and bodies outside education joining in with schools, but we cannot have wealthy men, and so far it has all been men, coming in and buying control of schools."

She added: "I don't see why if you give £2m you should have control of a school, and equally that if you are an organisation that has something to offer schools you have to give £2m to get involved. I would like to see the Government unravel that."

Amendments to the Bill already tabled include a string of changes aimed at forcing schools to hold a ballot before taking up trust status, which would give them control over admissions.

Jon Grogan, the Labour sponsor of the amendments, said: "Democracy is a very modern idea.

"It would be a big step for a school to become a trust and it would be controversial.

"Why should it just be left to the governing body?"