Teachers lambast Kelly as she tries to sell school reforms

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, was greeted with cries of "shame" as she sought to defend the Government's school reforms.

She failed to convince an audience of teachers, governors and local authority leaders yesterday to support her plans to set up a network of independently run "trust" schools throughout the country.

Delegates at the North of England Education Conference in Gateshead were most incensed at her refusal to allow councils to set up any new community comprehensive schools. All new schools, she insisted, should be "at arm's length" from local councils.

Her comments, which were greeted with cries of "shame" and "why?", are bound to fuel the rebellion against the proposals by backbench Labour MPs - many of whom want to ditch plans for trust schools.

Last night, though, she was facing a potentially more serious blow to the Government's plans after parents' and governors' leaders said they were also opposing the proposals. They are supporting the biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, in staging a major conference to marshal opposition to the reforms.

Margaret Morrissey, a spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, said: "One of the biggest problems is over the admission system - which isn't working. We need to look at it but that doesn't mean allowing every school to interpret it in their own way."

Parental opposition is a major blow to Ms Kelly, who has styled herself the "parents' champion" since taking office. Under the Government's proposals, trust schools would be in charge of their own admission systems - although Ms Kelly insisted they would have to have regard to a code of practice on admissions forbidding any more selection.

However, Mrs Morrissey said: "We have a major White Paper - yet it side-steps all the major issues for parents. Allowing schools to do their own admission is a recipe to help them meet their exam targets - by excluding the pupils most in need of help."

In her speech, Ms Kelly sought to allay opponents' fears about trust schools - saying the trusts could cover a group of schools where the strongest schools offered support to the weak.

She said they were "a bridge to build standards for the schools that need our help, not a tunnel for schools that want to go it alone". They would be "run for pupils not for profit, and part of a system where it is 'parents choosing schools, not schools choosing parents'." They would be set up in partnership with universities, business foundations, charities and church groups.

However, her failure to make any concessions to critics of the White Paper ensured her a frosty reception from the conference. Most delegates had left by the time she began to speak. She had insisted she could not address the conference until 12.15pm - the time it was due to close - but many delegates left because they had trains to catch.

Mick Storey, the Labour education leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, said: "She says 'we want to respond to parents but not if they want a community school'. There doesn't seem to be any sense in that. I've got councillors and members very angry about these proposals. I don't think they'll have picked up anything from here that will alleviate their concerns."

Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders - formerly the Secondary Heads Association, added: "We have had 20 Education Acts in 20 years. Heads are fed up with being the guinea pigs in the Government's education laboratory where the trust-school experiment is to be carried out without any pilot or evidence it will work."

John Bangs, assistant secretary of the NUT, said: "She completely failed to reassure delegates that the White Paper wouldn't lead to fragmented education services. She also exposed the sham of the Government's pretence that this is somehow all a question of choice. It's all about strong-arm tactics by the Government to get the system they want - even if the local community doesn't want it."

Chris Waterman, executive director of Confed, which represents directors of local authority education and children's services, said: "This was a 100 per cent defence of the White Paper with no attempt to listen to the rainbow coalition which is ranged against it."