Tony Blair looked set last night to fail in his quest to leave the nation a lasting legacy of radical school reform, regardless of whether he wins or loses the Commons vote on controversial education legislation to be published today.
While the Prime Minister was throwing down the gauntlet to rebel backbenchers last night at a packed meeting at the Commons, headteachers delivered a body blow to the reforms by insisting there was very little enthusiasm for them.
Only a handful of schools will opt for "trust" status, which would give them control of their own admissions policies and allow them to work with partners in industry, higher education or faith groups to improve education standards, they said.
They argued there was already a bewildering array of different types of state schools, and the last thing education needed was to opt for another type of schooling, especially when the powers the new "trust" schools will have differ so little from existing foundation schools.
The Prime Minister, though, told Labour MPs he saw his controversial school reforms as "absolutely the crux of what a Labour government is about". He warned the rebels that Labour had to adopt the "rhythm of Government" to win a fourth term, suggesting like the Tories in the 1980s they should stay united to make Labour the natural party of Government.
He said: "I want this bill as a Labour Bill. We have listened and we have responded to the vote and the events of the next few weeks can be defining moment for us."
And he told his party not to contemplate electoral deals with the Liberal Democrats. "I want no more talk of a hung Parliament," he said.
He was given a show of support by key Cabinet allies including Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Charles Clarke, John Reid, and Alan Johnson.
Mr Blair said the proposals, which aim to create a network of independently-run "trust" schools throughout the country, were "extremely important to the future of a Labour government". Both Mr Blair and Education Secretary Ruth Kelly spent yesterday trying to woo potential Labour rebels. Ms Kelly said she was confident of getting the majority to support the package.
But Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school heads, underlined that any win - even with a majority of Labour MPs, rather than simply with the backing of the Tories - would be a hollow victory.
He said: "To most people, this will just be a debate that's happening on another planet - planet politics rather than planet education." He predicted a maximum of 120 schools would opt for "trust" status over the next couple of years, including sixty which have already won freedom from council controls through the establishment of foundation schools two years ago. Mr Blair yesterday declined to put a figure on the number he anticipated.
So far only two schools have publicly declared they want to become "trusts". One is Thorpe Bay secondary school in Southend, Essex, one of the worst ten in the country for GCSE performance in exam league tables published last month. Local grammar schools "cream off" the potentially brightest pupils, putting the school at a disadvantage, and Thorpe Bay is planning to sign a "trust" agreement with a neighbouring private college, Prospect, to allow it to deliver more vocational courses.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that a better way of solving Thorpe Bay's problems would be to bring an end to selection - rather than opting for "trust" status. "I'd call for them to end it there - and also in Kent," he said.
"I'm absolutely certain that there are senior people in the Department for Education and Skills, senior advisers to Ruth Kelly herself, who really understand the damage a selective system does to pupils."
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers - which represents primary school heads as well as secondary, argued: "It's all smoke and mirrors, really.
"We already have freedoms as heads. You don't have to buy into local authority services if you don't want to."
How the plans for 'trust' status will work
Under the Government's proposals, any school can opt for "trust" status - individually or as part of a group of schools.
They have to set themselves up as a charitable trust - with partners from business, universities, faith or parents' groups. Unlike specialist schools, or academies, partners do not have to provide sponsorship.
They will have the power to determine admissions policies - provided they act "in accordance with" a national code outlawing new forms of selection.
They will be able to select 10 per cent of pupils through aptitude tests provided they specialise in a range of subjects, such as modern languages, sport and music.
They will also have the power to run the school through appointing governing bodies - with a majority of trust representatives. They will own their own assets - ie buildings - and employ their own staff. If they fail, their assets will revert to the local council.
They will not be given cash to opt for trust status. They receive funding from the local council - on the usual per pupil basis. With groups of schools opting for "trust" status, the Government favours teaming struggling ones with successful ones.
Bill's key proposals
* Trust schools: A self-governing authority, a "trust", will be created to oversee individual schools or chains of schools. These can be run by schools or outside providers, such as universities, businesses, faith or community groups.
* Parent power: A schools commissioner will be appointed to help parents set up schools and to match potential backers with schools.
* Discipline: The Bill will set out teachers' rights to discipline disruptive pupils. Parents who fail to supervise children who are suspended from school face a £100 fine.
* Admissions: Aims to tackle problem of parents not getting the place they want for their child. Will not impose alternative system but aims to increase number of successful schools.
* Concessions made to Labour rebels: Banning schools from interviewing pupils and parents; allowing councils to build new schools; increasing powers of admissions forums so they can object if they feel a school is breaking the admissions code; clarification that it is voluntary for schools to become trusts and powers for the schools adjudicator to refuse the creation of new trusts.
Sarah CassidyReuse content