Leading article: Why the lady may have to turn
Thursday 12 January 2006
Ruth Kelly's address to the North of England education conference last week struck a note of defiance over the Government's school reforms. The trouble is, however, that support for key elements of the package appears to be ebbing away. Three separate polls in the past seven days have shown that two-thirds of teachers, more than 60 per cent of heads and 72 per cent of backbench Labour MPs are now against the proposals.
In particular, the heads are against the idea of popular schools expanding, and no one supports the idea of independently run "trust" schools in charge of their own admissions policies - even if they are governed by a national code stipulating no more selection in schools. As a result, the Education Secretary's speech conjured up images of the boy on the burning deck rather than a bold vision of a future vision.
On the question of expanding popular schools, the remedy may lie in the hands of the head teacher. If heads do not want to expand, they don't have to. Many believe the popularity of their schools stems in part from their size at present. They don't want to become big and impersonal. Others don't have the space to expand.
The question of "trust" schools is a bit trickier, because Tony Blair sees them as his education legacy to the nation. Two modifications could be made to his proposals to placate his backbenchers. First, parts of the code on admissions could become legally binding. In other words, interviews with parents would be banned to reduce the chances of covert selection (which already goes on). Second, the insistence that all new schools should be "trust" or "foundation" schools, and that community comprehensives run by local authorities be banned, must be changed. The legislation could stipulate that, if parents want a community comprehensive run by their local authority, they should be allowed to have it.
Both measures would take the sting out of the opposition from Labour MPs, and would fit in with the Government's parent-power agenda. One observer at last week's North of England conference summed up Kelly's speech as "the lady's not for turning". If that is true, she may have to accept that her planned school reforms are not for turning - into legislation - either.
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