Headteachers' powers could be reduced by reforms, critics warn

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's planned education reforms could end up tightening the rules that determine how schools choose their pupils, instead of giving heads the promise of greater freedom.

In the biggest hint yet that the Government is ready to change tack to head off a backbench rebellion, the Schools minister Jacqui Smith announced yesterday that a planned new code on admissions, due to be published next month, has been withdrawn. The code was a set of rules designed to stop the most popular state schools from cherry picking the pupils who are easiest to teach. Heads were to be required to "have regard" to it, but would not have been bound by it.

But yesterday's announcement triggered suspicions that the Government is now ready to impose a statutory code, so that heads could find themselves ordered by the schools adjudicator - the official who supervises the code - to alter their selection procedures. "They are withdrawing the code, and the next thing we will see is that it turns up in the Education Bill," the shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, forecast. "That will make the whole system more inflexible.

"In the face of mounting pressure from his backbenches, Tony Blair appears to have abandoned his plans for school admissions. Any rethink should result in schools getting more freedom, not less - that is the test we will apply to their proposals."

John Dunford, of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "They have scored so many own goals on this that it just isn't true. If they have withdrawn the code, it must be because they are considering making it statutory. It would be deliciously ironic if a White Paper intended to give schools more freedom ended up doing that."

David Chaytor, one of the leading Labour rebels, welcomed the announcement yesterday as a sign that the Government is responding to "constructive criticism". He added: "It's a good sign for the weeks ahead, when there will be many more constructive criticisms. There is a powerful case for a code that schools have to comply with, and that case is growing more powerful by the week. But it is not just a case of the status of the code, but also of what is in it. If the Government, and now theOpposition, are saying they are opposed to any return of the 11-plus, that should be reflected in the code."

Privately, the rebels claim that more than 100 Labour MPs could vote against the Education Bill when it comes to the Commons next year, if it follows what was proposed in last month's education White Paper. They fear giving schools more independence could widen the gap between the best and worst state schools, and undermine local councils.

Some of the leading critics of the Bill, including the former education secretary Estelle Morris and the former ministers John Denham and Angela Eagle, will publish their counter proposals today. They insist their aim is to avoid a confrontation with the Government by arriving at a compromise. Yesterday, Lady Morris, who resigned as education secretary in 2002, described the proposals as "at best a distraction, at worst a change of direction".

David Blunkett, another former education secretary, has also privately criticised the Bill. A friend said that Mr Blunkett hoped to act as a "broker" to help head off a major rebellion which could put Mr Blair in the humiliating position of relying on Conservative support to get his Bill through.

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Edward Davey, said: "This is not about New Labour versus old Labour. This is about those who want to reform education to benefit all our young people versus those whose plans would entrench existing inequalities." David Cameron, the Tory leader, has repeatedly offered to back Mr Blair against the Labour rebels - an offer calculated to increase friction on the Labour side. Recently, he surprised some observers by announcing that he is opposed to bringing back the 11-plus in any form. But he is also adamant that the admissions code should not be made compulsory.