Blair hints at climbdown on schools reform

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is preparing a partial climbdown over his controversial reforms to secondary education by using key recommendations in today's report by the Commons Select Committee on Education to buy off a rebellion on the Labour backbenches.

Downing Street has privately signalled it is ready to accept some recommendations, including barring parental interviews to allow heads to select pupils and giving greater strength to a code on admissions through regulations. Local authorities could also monitor admissions. The assets of trust schools will remain in public hands if private sponsors run the schools.

Mr Blair appeared to give a pledge to David Cameron, the Conservative leader, on Wednesday that he would not compromise on the education White Paper but the Prime Minister's official spokesman yesterday made it plain that No 10 would seek a way through the impasse with backbench MPs by offering concessions.

Tories on the committee will embarrass Mr Blair today with a minority report calling for the White Paper to be implemented to give schools more choice over their own development.

The Labour chairman of the committee, Barry Sheerman, accused "external forces" in the Tory party of leaking his report and said he was considering a formal complaint to the privileges committee.

He urged Lord Kinnock, the former leader of the Labour Party, and the Compass group, who are leading opposition to the Government's White Paper, to accept a compromise. He said: "You can't defend the status quo. The Labour Party has been woefully neglectful in getting beyond the comprehensive model after ending selection and the 11-plus. Neil Kinnock is a dear friend but he's been out of the loop for a long time."

But rebels are refusing to back down. Ian Gibson, one of about 100 Labour MPs who back an alternative White Paper, said: "They will try to pick us off with concessions, but the majority are going to hold firm against any selection in schools. A lot of people feel education is too important to be bought off in a piecemeal fashion." The sticking point will be over the powers of local authorities to order schools to take more children from poor backgrounds. The committee suggests they should be able to set "benchmarks" for quotas of poorer children, but that is unacceptable to No 10.

The report says Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, told the committee that trust schools were the same as existing foundation schools, which have freedom to run their own affairs, "in everything but name". But it also says social segregation in schools is widespread, with middle-class families flocking to the most popular schools.

The report says the White Paper encourages more individual schools to determine their own admissions. "Without changes to the admissions process, if more schools act as their own admissions authorities, they will use that power to choose pupils who are likely to perform well academically," it says. "We are firmly of the opinion that fair access should take top priority.'

MPs' key recommendations

* Schools should be banned from interviewing parents over admissions or using "other proxies for selection".

* Councils should draw up benchmarks showing the percentage of pupils on free school meals they should take in to avoid discrimination against the disadvantaged.

* The Government should drop its insistence that all new schools must be independently-run "trusts" or foundation schools, and allow councils to open new community comprehensives.

* "Trusts" should be a partnership of two or more schools - rather than individual independently-run schools - to encourage co-operation.

* Plans to give teachers a new legal right to discipline pupils are welcome.

* The Government must investigate the under-representation of ethnic minority groups among pupils selected to take part in its programme for gifted and talented youngsters.