Blair 'ordered U-turn on faith schools admissions'

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair ordered the Government's U-turn over plans to force faith schools to admit pupils from other religions, according to the Catholic journal The Tablet.

A campaign led by the Catholic Church forced Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, into a rapid climbdown last week over his proposal under which faith schools could have been ordered to admit up to 25 per cent of their pupils from other faiths or none.

According to tomorrow's issue of The Tablet, the rethink followed pressure from Mr Blair as well as Labour backbenchers. It quotes a source who knows the Prime Minister well as saying: "Tony will have picked up the phone to Alan and said 'Look, this is not a good idea'."

Instead, Mr Johnson reached a voluntary agreement with church representatives under which faith schools will have the option of taking "up to" 25 per cent of pupils from outside their own religion and will be inspected by Ofsted for "integration" as well as standards.

Labour MPs who oppose faith schools were appalled. One said: "The Catholics are lucky Blair is still Prime Minister."

In an interview with the journal, Lord Adonis, the Education minister, admitted the Government had not handled the issue well. He blamed the need to respond quickly on the move, in the House of Lords, by Lord Baker of Dorking, the former Tory education secretary, to force faith schools to adopt more inclusive admission policies.

Lord Adonis said: "In retrospect if we'd had more time, we wouldn't have wanted to handle it in the way that we did. If we'd had more time of course we'd have wanted a proper, longer process of consultation before we indicated any position at all."

Lord Adonis, a close ally of Mr Blair and the former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, made clear he was personally happy with the climbdown by Mr Johnson. "It's just very fortunate for me that when it comes to the issue of faith schools, parents and voters tend to take quite strong faith school positions," he said.

But he declined to take the credit for preserving the right of Catholic schools to give preference to Catholic children. "It's not a question of saving," he said. "It's the Government that's the friend of Catholic education, on behalf of the public, and Alan's guiding principle all the way through has been to do the right thing by parents, including Catholic parents, who quite rightly want good quality Catholic schools for their children, and we've all been working together for that end."

The journal's report played down speculation that the U-turn followed behind-the-scenes pressure from Cherie Blair, a Catholic, and the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, a member of the Catholic sect Opus Dei.

It said there was no evidence that Mrs Blair intervened and Ms Kelly had been preoccupied with presenting a local government White Paper.