Labour revolt against school reforms grows

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Tony Blair's dwindling authority is likely to be further diminished this week when about 70 Labour MPs rebel against his flagship school reforms.

Government whips have warned Downing Street that the revolt against the Education and Inspections Bill has grown since 52 Labour backbenchers voted against it in March. Whips believe between 60 and 70 may oppose the measure in votes tomorrow and on Wednesday.

Although the measure will be approved by the Commons, Mr Blair will be forced to rely on the votes of Conservatives to defeat the Labour rebels.

The Tories will accuse the Prime Minister of watering down his original proposals to appease a group of "soft" rebels, most of whom will now support the Bill.

Government loyalists are likely to join forces with opponents to defeat Tory amendments aimed at beefing up the measure. But that would allow the Tories to claim they would complete the reforms Mr Blair had ducked if they win the next election.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, will seek to limit the scale of the Labour revolt when he addresses the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party tonight.

Jim Knight, the Schools minister, hinted yesterday that Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, may get a bigger role in ensuring that the independently run trust schools to be set up under the Bill meet obligations to ensure "community cohesion" by admitting pupils from different backgrounds. Hardline opponents will propose an amendment saying that trust schools should be created only when the idea is approved by a ballot of parents. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, predicted that the number of rebels would be "in the seventies if not higher".

The Labour critics' fears will be heightened by a study revealing evidence that schools are selecting pupils by stealth. It shows that secondary schools which are officially non-selective cherry-pick pupils to admit those who have done best in national curriculum tests and to exclude youngsters from poorer homes.

The report also debunks the claim that grammar schools offer working-class youngsters more social mobility. Children entitled to free school meals were eight times as likely to end up in comprehensive or secondary modern schools than a grammar school in selective areas.

The research by the London School of Economics and Political Science will fuel the misgivings of rebel Labour MPs worried that trust schools with control over admissions will select by stealth. It will also add impetus to a campaign by some Labour MPs to abolish selection by tabling another amendment to the Bill.

The study compared non-selective community schools run by local education authorities in London with those that had some control over admissions.

* Mr Blair was accused of having a cavalier attitude to sleaze issues by Sir Alistair Graham, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Prime Minister had treated standards as a "minor issue, not worthy of serious consideration", which was "a major error of judgement", Sir Alistair said.