Labour rebels say 100 MPs will join fight against school reforms

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Labour opponents of secondary school reform said opposition to the plans was growing and that 100 MPs would have signed a rebel motion by next week.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, is faced with having to back down over her White Paper proposals that the rebels say will lead to a return to selection for 11-year-olds.

She may have inflamed the issue by suggesting the rebels "misunderstood" the detail, which led a union to claim she was "patronising". A meeting of the rebels at the House of Commons was addressed by Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, Lady Morris, the former education secretary, and Alastair Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar. It was packed and is said to have increased support for their "alternative" White Paper. Last night, the sticking point appeared to be rebel demands for local authorities to retain powers over schools admission policies.

One said: "The Government is trying to peel off the MPs who are concerned about selection from those who are concerned about local authority control. But it won't work. Opposition is growing and we expect to have more than 100 names by next week."

So far, 90 Labour MPs have signed a rebel Commons motion opposing the reforms. John McTernan, the Prime Minister's "fixer" at the Commons, was unable to get into room 14 to hear Lord Kinnock because the room was so packed. The whips are expected to be sounding out MPs over the weekend.

The Government is ready to concede ground to the rebels over their demands for a statutory code of practice on selection being given more force, and curbs on selection by interviews of parents. They will use a highly critical report published next week by the Commons Select Committee on Education to show that the Government is listening.

Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the committee, is regarded as an ally of Downing Street but there is likely to be a fight over his committee's proposals for local authorities to be given "social composition" powers over schools.

Downing Street, which drafted the most contentious parts of the White Paper, is determined to hold the line over proposals to give schools greater freedom from interference by local authorities.

Blairite ministers said it an important point of principle that the Education Secretary did not give way over local authority powers.

The Prime Minister's allies are concerned that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has signalled he is on the side of the rebels. "There is a danger that it is going to become a split between the traditionalists with John Prescott on one side, and the Blairites on the other," said a source close to Mr Blair. "This is an ideological battle but some of the other rebels are not interested in the detail. They want to bring down Tony Blair over it."

Ms Kelly hinted yesterday at her determination to hold the line, strongly defending the freedom for trust schools to develop as they wish. "We are devolving more power to the front line over running their own affairs," she said.

She said she would be working with the rebels in the run-up to the publication of the Education Bill to give assurances that it would not open up the scope for selection. But she added: "If a school has a great idea for vocational work ... it should be able to do that.

"I think we can give the necessary clarification and reassurance on some points and that is what they [the rebels] are looking for."