Blair will turn to Tories for support over Education Bill

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Tony Blair has refused to make further concessions over his education reforms and warned rebel Labour MPs that he is ready force them through with the support of Conservative MPs.

At his monthly press conference, the Prime Minister risked alienating Labour critics of his plans by making clear he would rather rely on the Opposition than water down the Education Bill, which is due to be published next Tuesday. Although some close allies believe his position would be untenable if he needed Tory support to secure such a flagship measure, Mr Blair laughed off suggestions that he might have to resign in those circumstances.

In the next few days, a major selling operation will be launched by the Government in an attempt to head off the rebellion threatened by scores of Labour MPs still standing firm despite some concessions by ministers. They are demanding a further major change - ending the Education Secretary's power to veto plans by local authorities to build new comprehensive schools.

Asked if he would have to give more ground to his MPs, Mr Blair replied: "No. We have given the reassurance on both selection and the necessary strategic role of local authorities.

"If the concerns people had were over local authorities - and there are many local authority leaders now on board for these reforms - or selection, where we have given as much reassurance as we possibly can, they've been dealt with."

He insisted that plans to give new trust schools the freedom to manage their assets, employ their own staff and have their own culture "have got to remain because they are absolutely central".

He said he was "absolutely sure" that he would get the support of most Labour MPs, but added: "The question is whether we manage to get enough to get it through with Labour votes alone ... Of course I want to do it with with Labour MPs in full support. But I think this is a very, very critical issue for the Labour Party - for its instincts, for what it's about, for what it is trying to do."

Rejecting the criticism that his plans would create a two-tier system, Mr Blair said: "What matters is that the reforms lift standards, make good schools excellent, average schools good and for those that are failing, give them a new lease of life."

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Prime Minister is in denial if he believes that his proposals for trust schools will not lead to a two-tier system.All the independent evidence shows a two-tier system will be the by-product of so-called self governing independent status."

David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, said: "Our test will be a very simple one. Could the Bill raise the quality of education by increasing the freedom of our schools? If we believe that on balance it does do that, then we would back the Bill."