Willetts says Tories are 'excited' by education reforms

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The shadow Education Secretary David Willetts says he can see "something very exciting" in elements of the Government's school reforms.

In an interview with The Independent yesterday, he described Tony Blair's plan to establish a network of independently-run "trust" schools throughout the country as an improvement on Conservative legislation in the late 1980s to allow schools to opt out of council control.

"I see something very exciting in the idea of several schools coming together to form a trust federation," he said. "When we had the grant-maintained legislation, we had the kind of model under which a school could completely run its own affairs or completely stay with the local authority. There needs to be more options. Some schools just don't want to run their own affairs like that and the federation gives more freedom to those who don't want to go it alone. I think that's very attractive."

Under the Government's proposals, all schools will be able to opt for "trust" status - either individually or as groups of schools. They will then be able to set up partnerships with groups from industry, universities or faith groups. Parents will also be able to set up their own trust schools.

Mr Willetts accused Labour of "wasting six or seven years" by abolishing grant-maintained schools and then coming back with their own "son of grant maintained status" proposals with the plan for "trust" schools.

His comments are bound to stir up opposition amongst Labour backbenchers who have claimed the proposals will lead to more covert selection and create a two-tier system.

Mr Willetts reaffirmed that the Conservatives would be supporting today's legislation provided it still offered schools more freedoms to run their own affairs. He said the party's aim was "to move the Bill back towards Tony Blair's radical vision".

"We want to make the Bill more consistent with the radicalism proposed by the Prime Minister when presenting the White Paper," he added. At that stage Mr Blair talked of the shake-up as being one of the most pivotal changes in education in the past 60 years - which would offer state schools the same freedoms to operate as those in the independent sector. Mr Willetts said he was worried Mr Blair had been "distracted" by having to make concessions to his own backbenchers.

Mr Willetts described the White Paper's proposal to insist all new schools should be "trust" or foundation schools - which have similar freedoms - as "ingenious".