Blair heads for clash over school plans

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will defy growing protests from public sector unions this week by endorsing plans for private firms to take over some of Britain's failing schools.

The proposal, which is to be contained in the Education White Paper, has led to unrest inside the Cabinet and threatens to ignite one of the most damaging rows for years at the TUC and Labour conferences.

He rejected the advice of some of his most senior ministers to delay the publication of the document until after the conferences where a union rebellion against private finance in public services, including the NHS, is expected to be led by John Edmonds' GMB general union.

Attempts to win sponsorship of conference events by McDonald's have increased union irritation. "We should be concentrating on teaching the 3 Rs instead of finding new ways to flog Bic Macs," said a GMB source.

Downing Street stuck to its publication plans for the education document this week to coincide with the return to school by most secondary pupils across England and Wales.

No 10 advisers remain convinced that the private sector funding will prove popular with parents and regard it as vital for failing schools, in spite of the union unrest.

It also will foreshadow a massive increase in the number of specialist secondary schools. Every school will be given the right to apply for specialist status. Only those that cannot convince ministers of their ability to meet new targets for raising the level of exam passes and schools on the failing list will be denied that right.

Critics inside the Cabinet appear to have won a battle to prevent private finance being injected more widely into successful schools unless there is overwhelming support from parents and the schools.

Education ministers were last night playing down the extent to which private companies will be given the go-ahead to take over the running of state schools. Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, is keen to stress she will adopt a "whatever works" approach – only using the private sector if it can be shown it will work better in improving standards.

The White Paper, to be published on Wednesday, will outline only two key areas in which private companies will be used:

* to take over the running of failing schools. They could be turned into new style City Acadamies, receiving government funding but remaining outside the state sector and run independently from local authority schools.

* to set up new schools and run them. Private companies, churches and voluntary organisations will all be encouraged to put in proposals for new schools if they can receive parental backing.

Ministers were keen to stress last night that there would be no "rowing back" on earlier proposals for private involvement, which include allowing successful schools and education departments to invite the private sector in to take over control. However, it was being stressed this would only be done at the behest and with the backing of the school concerned and its parents.

One source said it was "highly unlikely" that more than a couple of dozen individual schools would end up being run by private companies although they could be invited in to take over the management of council education services.

In an attempt to defuse the row before the conferences, Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, is to tour the country meeting local MPs and party activists to shore up their support.

Unison, the huge public sector workers union, is drafting a hard-hitting conference motion in opposition to Mr Blair's aim to increase the involvement of private firms in hospitals, schools and transport.