MPs dig in for fight over school changes

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The Independent Online

In a set of proposals to be presented to Parliament tomorrow by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, Blairites will call for greater private involvement in the running of schools and a diminished role for local authorities. As Mr Blair fights to cement his modernising legacy, he will use a speech in Downing Street to declare that every school should become a "self governing independent state school".

The Prime Minister will also hail an increase in parent power. Last night, aides said that - despite growing opposition - the reforms would be "irreversible and self-sustaining".

The plans, to be unveiled in a White Paper tomorrow, have already run into opposition from John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and risk fuelling a backlash from Labour left-wingers, unions, head teachers and parents' leaders.

MPs and parents' groups are furious about the proposals that would allow heads to determine their own admissions and encourage business, faith groups and parents to start their own schools.

Cabinet ministers failed to deny reports that Mr Prescott had raised concerns about the issue during meetings last week.

Mr Prescott is thought to be concerned at the prospect of stripping powers from local authorities, and worried that expanding private involvement will benefit the few, not the many.

Left-wingers have attacked the proposals as amounting to the privatisation of schools. John McDonnell, chairman of the Socialist Campaign group of MPs, said: "It's all part of the privatisation agenda. The mood in the party and the unions is that enough is enough because it will be us facing the backlash ... not the Prime Minister."

But Mr Blair will say the reform "marks a pivotal moment in the life of this Parliament and this Government". The White Paper will outline the biggest reform of school admissions since the creation of comprehensive schools more than 40 years ago.

Ms Kelly sought to play down the row over the reforms, telling the BBC: "As you know, whenever flagship policies are developed there is going to be debate within the Government."

Government sources insisted the Cabinet was behind the White Paper. But there is likely to be a battle over how the proposals are transformed into a new Education Bill to be published in the New Year.

Speaking on BBC 1's Sunday AM programme, Ms Kelly said it would be up to schools to determine their own admissions arrangements, and said she was planning to subsidise transport for families from less well-off homes to allow them access to oversubscribed schools in the leafy suburbs.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned: "We have had 20 years of constant reform. Schools are very tired of being reformed. It would be far better for the children if schools could just get on with educating them."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, predicted the reforms would be a failure, warning that they would be "largely ignored" by schools.

Parents' leaders warned the reforms could lead to religiously segregated schools and leave the admissions system in chaos.

Opposition MPs seized on the row. David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary, said Mr Blair was, in effect, reintroducing grant-maintained schools.