Kelly vows to push on with reforms and says critics are 'wrong'

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly has defended her plans to reform schools in England, telling opponents that they were "just plain wrong".

The Education Secretary presented the proposals to the Cabinet in the morning and later to a conference of newly appointed head teachers, arguing the reforms were essential and "rooted in Labour values".

In a speech aimed at winning over backbench Labour rebel MPs, Ms Kelly accused her opponents of promulgating a "deliberate misunderstanding" of her plans by claiming proposals to give schools greater independence would lead to a return to selection.

"Let me be crystal clear here," she said. "These arrangements will be within the admissions code that ensures fair admissions.

"There will be no free-for-all and there will not be a return to selection by ability by the front door, back door, trap door, green door, or any other door at all."

The Government is facing a backbench rebellion over the school reforms that would enable schools in England to become "trust schools" with control over their own finances, staff and admissions. That could lead to the selection of middle class youngsters at the expense of poorer children, they fear.

Tony Blair has been taken aback by the level of opposition to the reforms and is anxious to see no repeat of the rebellion that saw his anti-terrorism measures rejected last week.

However, headteachers at yesterday's conference said they had not been won over by Ms Kelly and they still had concerns about many of the proposals. They added that Ms Kelly's attack on her critics showed she was ignoring the genuine concerns raised by schools.

Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, accused ministers of ignoring schools' concerns about the reforms. "The Government is not listening to school leaders who are saying the White Paper is confusing and fails to give heads the kind of freedom that they need to work as part of a collaborative state system," he said.

"The proposed trust schools offer no obvious advantages and they will be ignored by the vast majority of heads."

During her speech at the London conference, Ms Kelly did acknowledge ministers must "explain better and listen more" to teachers and members of the Labour Party who have voiced serious concerns.

She said: "Within any change, there will be genuine concerns, and we will listen to them and address them. There is no place for deliberate misunderstanding of what we are trying to achieve." She insisted that the schools White Paper, published last month, was designed to raise standards for all pupils - especially those from poor families - and not "just for the middle classes".

She also rejected the idea that her plan for new "trust schools", which would be backed by businesses, charities and faith groups, marked a return to a former Tory policy which created grant-maintained schools.

"Some misguided critics have tried to claim that, through the trust schools, we are just bringing back the model of grant-maintained schools. They are just plain wrong."

Ms Kelly's speech attracted criticism from Estelle Morris, the former education secretary. She branded the White Paper as "one of the most confusing" she had ever seen.

Ms Kelly was also under fire from the chief schools inspector, David Bell, yesterday. He warned that government plans to encourage more schools to open sixth forms could weaken A-level provision.

Mr Bell, the head of Ofsted - the education standards watchdog - warned: "There is no point in having a massive expansion of sixth forms if they are not actually doing the job."

Mr Bell was speaking at a conference in Birmingham after heads of sixth form colleges said the plans - included in the White Paper - could reduce A-level choice for students.

Neil Hopkinson, the principal of Peter Symonds Sixth Form College in Winchester, Hampshire, said: "We offer between 40 and 50 subjects at A-level and can offer students whatever choice of these they want. Most schools that open a sixth form for the first time can only offer around 11 or 12 subjects."

College heads warned that new school sixth forms would entice pupils to stay with their school when they would otherwise have gone to college - thus threatening the viability of the range of subjects they had on offer.

Mr Bell said he felt the criticisms were "fair", adding that opening more sixth forms could lead to "weak" provision.

Ruth Kelly had previously told the Birmingham conferencethat ministers were committed to the expansion of school sixth forms.

If testing is banned, how do schools decide who gets in?

Why is the Government facing the prospect of a massive revolt by backbenchers over the Education Bill?

They are worried the proposal to allow all schools to quit local authority control and become independently run "trust" schools will lead to increasing numbers adopting backdoor methods to select their pupils.

Are their fears justified?

There are no proposals to increase selection in the White Paper that has preceded the Bill - indeed, the very opposite. Schools are told they should adopt a fair admissions policy and there should be no increase in selection. The trouble is the code of practice for schools on admissions is voluntary and - as the well-publicised case of the London Oratory where the school has been given the go-ahead to interview pupils to help it decide whom to admit proves - it can be ignored.

But hasn't Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said there would be no selection - by the backdoor, front door, green door or any other door?

She has - but the evidence compiled by the Sutton Trust education charity, set up by millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, shows the 200 top-performing state schools have far fewer pupils from poorer homes than the rest. They are also the ones that are the most oversubscribed so it does seem the middle classes have a much better chance of getting their children into these than those from poorer homes.

How about the plans to "bus" children from poorer homes to better-performing schools in the suburbs? And to allow oversubscribed schools to expand?

They may have a marginal effect in improving the situation but - even if the Government offers cut-price travel to pupils from poorer homes - the school can still reject them. In addition, many of the most popular schools do not want to expand. They believe part of the reason for their current success is their size and they do not want to become larger.

What about the Government's "admissions tsar", the School Adjudicator? Is he the answer?

There are plans to strengthen his hand by insisting any ruling he makes will be legally binding on a school for three years rather than just one as at present. His rulings are final except in the case of religious schools where the decision has to be referred to the Secretary of State. The trouble is much of the selection that goes on is by stealth and so it is difficult to pin a school down for breaching admissions procedures.

Is selection the limit of MPs' concern?

No, they are worried about the Government's programme to establish 200 privately sponsored Academies to replace struggling inner city schools - and, in general, by the Government's proposal to give more power to private companies and faith groups in the running of schools.

However, while the Academies' programme is confirmed in the White Paper, it does not need any further legislation to implement it - as many Academies are already up and running.

What do teachers and parents think of the proposals?

There is little enthusiasm. Heads believe that schools will largely ignore the exultation to quit council control and become "trust" schools as there are no incentives for them to do so. They are worried over schools being given freedom over admissions policies and believe that will encourage more competition rather than collaboration between schools.

Parents are sceptical about the way the proposals have been billed as giving them more choice - believing that, while schools control admissions, it is they who will choose the pupils rather than the parents who will choose the schools.

Will Tony Blair be able to get his legislation through?

There are backbench MPs who believe the only answer to the furore over admissions is to make the code of practice on admissions legally binding. Ruth Kelly says that is not practical as it includes concepts such as fairness which are difficult to define. I suspect beefing up the "admission tsar's" powers and encouraging more councils to complain about schools breaking the admissions code - as Ms Kelly suggested yesterday - will not be enough in themselves to head off a rebellion.

Richard Garner