Kelly's Bill offers few concessions to the rebels

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is heading for a showdown with Labour MPs after the Government and its backbench critics dug in for a fight over the education reforms at the heart of the Prime Minister's final years in office.

Ministers have published the Education and Inspections Bill, insisting there would be no further concessions to Labour rebels before the first major vote on the legislation in a fortnight's time.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, embarked on the latest round of talks aimed at winning over Labour rebels last night, insisting that she was "confident that this is a Bill that my colleagues should be able to unite around".

Rebel leaders claimed that more than 100 Labour MPs remained sceptical about the Bill, including up to 80 hard core backbench opponents, with left-wing opinion hardening in favour of an insurrection when MPs debate the Bill's second reading later this month.

Other estimates suggested that there could still be up to 50 opponents, amid continuing worries over proposals to set up new independent "trust" schools with freedoms over budgets and admissions. Critics fear such a move would increase selection into English schools by the back door.

However, ministers said they were winning over dissidents, although one cabinet minister acknowledged that about 40 backbenchers "who have never been with us" may still be implacably opposed to the Bill.

Graham Allen, a former government whip, said: "It is there for the Government to win now, if they continue to be sensible and engage with people. But it's there to be lost if the Government suddenly for some reason retrenches and say they are not talking to us any more."

A rebellion on the Labour ranks has the potential to force Mr Blair into the humiliating position of having to rely on Conservative support to push the legislation through the Commons.

David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, pledged support for the Bill, despite some tension on the Tory benches, but Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said that it threatened to reduce parental choice.

Ministers said there was only room for "small" moves towards Labour changes to the legislation during its passage through the Commons. One said: "It is a Labour Bill and I expect colleagues to support it. I was elected to vote Labour."

They highlighted measures in the Bill such as giving teachers the legal right to discipline pupils for the first time. Ministers challenged opponents not to wreck the package, warning that there would be no "pick-and-mix" concessions.

But Martin Salter, a leading backbench critic, said: "Many Labour MPs will be weighing up whether the Government has done enough to earn their vote at second reading in the hope that further improvements will materialise."

John McDonnell, the chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, said: "The Bill remains unacceptable to any Labour MP seeking to ensure fair access to a decent education for all of their constituents, rich or poor."

Some senior Blairite MPs are worried there may be backsliding among MPs already persuaded to back the Government. One said: "They may be put off by the legalistic way in which the Bill is framed. We're going to have our work cut out keeping people on board."

In particular, there is concern over the extent of a concession to allow councils to open new community comprehensive schools.

In the original White Paper, there was a bar on new community schools. Mr Blair softened his stance to lift the ban, but insisted that the Government should have the right to veto any council proposal.

Ms Kelly has said she would be unlikely to use the veto if it came from a council with a good track record on education provision. The text of the Bill confirms that Ms Kelly will have a veto, but gives no reassurance that applications from councils will be granted.

There is also no mention of Mr Blair's "trust" schools, the independently run schools which will form links with industry, faith groups or universities, in the 194 pages of the Bill. A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said this was a legal matter.

Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Once you strip away the rhetoric, one must ask what the freedoms available to 'trust' schools are that are not already enjoyed by community and foundation schools.

"We are concerned that not only has the Government lost the confidence of some of its parliamentary party but also a large section of the education community. There is much work to be done to repair this."

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "There has been no great interest in trust status from headteachers and it is unlikely that many schools will go down this route."

Voices from the debate

MALCOLM TROBE headteacher of Malmesbury school in Wiltshire

"I cannot see any significant benefits of trust schools. It seems that schools could lose some of their autonomy by going down this route and there doesn't seem to be any advantage in terms of new powers or funding. The measures on discipline are going to be important."

JOHN ADAMS co-chair of the National Governors' Association

"We welcome things like the personalised learning agenda, emphasis on parental responsibilities and discipline. Where we continue to have difficulty with the proposals is the issue of trust schools. We are told trust schools will involve the appointment of dynamic governors - the implication being that existing governors are inert and sclerotic."

JOHN DUNFORD general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

"We are pleased to see support for headteachers in personalising the curriculum and in improving pupil behaviour. We areconcerned at the proposal for individual schools to acquire trust status. If an obligation to collaborate were placed on schools, it would avoid a return to a two-tier system."

LAURA WARREN from Maidstone, Kent, who has an eight-year-old daughter, Amelia, at primary school

"Parents aren't asking for choice - they're asking for every school to be a good school. Parents shouldn't be makingdifficult choices. Parents don't want to run schools - we trust education professionals to do that."

DAVID CHAYTOR Labour MP for Bury North

"I think the Bill has taken on board many of the suggestions in the so-called alternative White Paper. I think that all the signs are now good for me and people like me to support the proposals."

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