Kelly 'confident' over school reforms bill

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The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly this morning said she was "very confident" that Labour MPs will be able to unite around the measures for school reform which she is unveiling today.

Up to 100 Labour backbenchers have voiced concern over her proposals for reform of secondary schools, raising the prospect that Prime Minister Tony Blair may be forced to rely on Conservative votes to get the Education Bill through Parliament.

But Ms Kelly said she believed that the vast majority of the Labour Party was now "comfortable" with the measures she is putting forward.

"I am very confident that we have a Bill which is not only a good Bill which will help drive up standards, but which is also a Bill which will command the consent of my colleagues and which Labour MPs can unite around," she said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Ms Kelly said both she and Mr Blair want "as many Labour MPs as possible to support this Bill".

Echoing the Prime Minister's comments yesterday, she said: "We want it to be a Labour Bill."

Ms Kelly said she had listened hard to Labour MPs and councillors over their concerns that her reforms could create a two-tier education system.

She said she had introduced provisions in the Bill to ensure that there was no return to academic selection.

The Bill now provided the "clear and robust framework which will ensure equity as well as excellence" which her colleagues were looking for.

Ms Kelly said on Today: "I think the general direction of the reforms - which is completely consistent with what has been taking place over the last nine years and has led to higher standards, particularly in disadvantaged communities - is something that the vast majority of the Labour Party is comfortable with."

She left no doubt about the importance of the reforms to Mr Blair's third-term agenda.

"Education is fundamental to what Labour stands for and this Bill is a centrepiece of our educational proposals," she said. "It is hugely important."

The legislation due to be published later today is intended to create a new generation of independent "trust" schools.

It is expected to reflect changes to key proposals promised in the wake of a Labour outcry.

But it is also set to disappoint many backbench critics by retaining powers for the Education Secretary to block local authorities from opening new schools.

Under the plans, the new breed of state schools would be free to run their own affairs with the backing of business groups, parents' bodies and faith organisations.

The schools would own their land and assets and have control over their admissions policies.

In a sign of the scale of Labour unrest, former party leader Neil Kinnock broke his silence on Government affairs to join a large group promoting an alternative set of policies.

Elements of the reforms were savaged in a report by the Labour-dominated House of Commons Education Select Committee.

And the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made a highly-unusual public attack on the proposals, although he has subsequently insisted he is now behind them.

Ministers have given ground by allowing local authorities to keep their power to set up new community schools, which was due to be scrapped under the original White Paper measures.

They have also promised to give legal force to the admissions code and ban the use of interviews to select pupils.

Ms Kelly this morning insisted that the proposed changes were "about driving up standards for every child in every school".

The Bill would show "how it is possible for every school that wants to - but only where it wants to - to gain the freedoms that are there for foundation schools," she said.

"What we want to do, and what this Bill will do, is help create more good schools. It will enable schools to take the measures which the headteacher thinks are important for the pupils at that school and for the local community."

Mr Blair last night urged his party's MPs to back the Bill at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

But it was clear today that not all backbench concern has been quelled.

Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman told Today: "The concern is that this is about fragmentation of the education service even further.

"If these changes do increase attainment in low-achieving areas, that would be a success, but the evidence for that is not at all clear.

"Indeed, removing powers from the local authorities, who are there to act in the interest of the whole community, is not likely to achieve success for areas which need more support.

"I think that is the big question mark hanging over this."