Education changes attacked as unfair and poor value

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Ruth Kelly, the beleaguered Education Secretary, suffered a new setback when the public spending watchdog launched a stinging attack on her controversial school reforms.

The Audit Commission, the body responsible for checking public money is spent wisely, dismissed them as unfair, inconsistent and poor value for money.

It warned that, far from helping children from poorer backgrounds to get into the best schools, the reforms are likely to leave them more disadvantaged.

The commission backs the concerns of rebel backbench MPs over giving schools more control over their admissions.

"We have reservations about the consequences of schools making autonomous and unchecked decisions about admissions arrangements," it said. "Such decisions are more likely to work against the interests of the most disadvantaged, least mobile and worst-informed parents and children."

The findings put Ms Kelly under pressure to compromise before a Bill based on the White Paper is published next month.

The commission and rebel MPs say the code of practice on admissions should be made legally binding. Otherwise, it says, the White Paper "does not make sufficient progress to match the increases it seeks to promote in school autonomy with the checks and balances necessary to secure equity of access".

It criticises the idea that widening parental choice is essential to driving up school standards. "In many parts of the country, choice is neither realistic nor an issue of primary importance to parents," it argues.

It says the proposals could lead to an increase in surplus places in schools, saying "it does not address the situation over the next 10 years where surplus capacity" will be more frequent. It also attacks the Government's decision to put a ban on new community comprehensive schools.

Under the Government proposals all new schools must be either independently-run "trust" schools or foundation schools - free from council controls.

The report concludes: "The White Paper misses a major opportunity to secure necessary and better local coherence and challenge."

It criticises the decision to give Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, a new role to report on complaints by parents, saying this "seems a recipe for complaint escalation, a confusion of role and a serious strain on capacity".

The report will be followed later this month by another from the Commons Select Committee on Education, which is expected to criticise the "confusion" created by the White Paper. More than 70 Labour MPs have signed an alternative "White Paper" demanding changes to the proposals.