Blair feels heat as 60 MPs sign up to alternative education plan

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Despite his fighting talk yesterday, Tony Blair is expected to back down over his much-criticised plans for schools after a show of strength by potential Labour rebels.

More than 60 Labour MPs have signed up to the "alternative White Paper", written by former ministers and leading backbench Labour MPs, which claims to keep to the spirit of the Blair school reforms while building in better protection for children from deprived backgrounds.

Their plans are a major challenge to the Prime Minister because of the public support they have received from people who cannot be written off as habitual rebels. The authors of the report, Shaping the Education Bill, include the former education secretary, Estelle Morris, the former home office minister, John Denham, and the former local government minister, Nick Raynsford.

In public yesterday the Prime Minister was defiant. Challenged by the Tory leader, David Cameron, on whether he intended to abandon reforms set out in last month's official White Paper, Mr Blair insisted: "We will stick with the changes in the White Paper because they are the right changes to make."

But the rebels believe Downing Street will do a deal with them before the Education Bill is brought to Parliament. One said: "The White Paper is a very flexible thing, with some excellent bits in it, so the question is which the White Paper is going to stick with."

The size of the potential rebellion would make it nearly impossible for Mr Blair to force his reforms through without Conservative support. The rebels warn that Mr Blair's drive to give schools more independence could widen the gap between the best and worst schools, with pupils considered difficult to teach being excluded from the most popular schools. They want a better system of regulation to protect the most vulnerable children and prevent the spread of "sink" schools. "There is a serious risk of delivering enhanced choice only for some, and reduced or restricted choice for others. Disadvantaged pupils may be losers rather than gainers from the new policy," the document warned.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The alternative White Paper is essential reading for all those who remain concerned, despite ministerial assurances, that control over our schools will fall into the hands of unelected, unaccountable bodies with no democratic mandate."

Launching the document yesterday, Mr Denham said its authors wanted to "work constructively" with the Government to produce reforms that most Labour members could support.

The shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, said: "Mr Blair ... can work with us to move forward on education reform. We have said clearly that we will support reforms which promote rigour, encourage discipline, and give schools more autonomy and parents more choice. Mr Blair has a clear choice: forward or back."

* Mr Blair was also under pressure over the decision not to hold a public inquiry into the 7 July bombings. "We will bring together all the evidence that we have and we will publish it so that people can see exactly what happened," he told the Commons. "But if we ended up having a full-scale public inquiry when we essentially know what happened on 7 July, we would end up diverting a massive amount of police and security service time."