Rebels sound warning over education reforms

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Tony Blair is treating his MPs like ignorant children instead of listening to the reasons for the growing opposition to his proposed school reforms, a leading Labour politician says.

The Prime Minister and Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, have begun an intensive campaign to win over sceptical Labour MPs, more than 100 of whom are said to be considering rebelling when the Education Bill is presented in the new year.

Last week's rebellion over the Terrorism Bill, Mr Blair's first Commons defeat, has stiffened the morale of Labour rebels, many of whom are impatient for the Prime Minister to fulfil his promise to resign.

Their opposition could put Mr Blair in the humiliating position of relying on support from the Tories, who promised to back him if he has "real reforms".

George Mudie, Labour MP for Leeds East, a former education minister and government whip, who led last year's rebellion against student tuition fees, said: "They are treating us like children who fail to understand, either through malice or stupidity, and will change our minds only if we are lectured to sufficiently.

"This Bill will do nothing for children from where I represent. Nobody from outside is going to send their children to inner-city schools. I'm certainly not going to vote for it unless there are fundamental changes.

"If sufficient people are like that, [Mr Blair] will be depending on the votes of the Tories. Either he will be rescued by the Tories, which will be humiliating for him, or he will be ditched by the Tories at the last minute, and face defeat."

Mr Blair defended his plans in a speech to business leaders in Co Durham, trying to defuse opposition by using traditional Labour language about helping the disadvantaged.

But reactions suggested he has a long way to go before he can secure a Commons majority. In particular, MPs with inner-city seats fear he will widen the gap between the best and worst schools, to the advantage of middle-class children but at the expense of children from deprived areas.

At a three-hour cabinet meeting on Thursday, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, objected to the way the reforms will undercut local education authorities, by encourag- ing schools to govern themselves.

One MP close to Mr Prescott, who asked not to be named, said: "I will be amazed if this Bill has any chance of getting through without Tory support, or if even a majority of Labour MPs will vote for it. It's a recipe for disaster."

Jon Cruddas, a former Downing Street political adviser, said the council in his Dagenham constituency had a good record for running schools, which the reforms threatened to undermine. "I don't like the idea that any new school has to be outside the system, or the inducements to push schools outside it," he said.

In a recorded interview for GMTV's Sunday programme, Bill Morris, the former leader of the TGWU, said the crisis could drive Mr Blair out of office. "What we can't afford to do is to create a crisis situation where we have to rely on the Tory party to get the Government's programme through this parliament," he said. "That is totally unacceptable. The Prime Minister might feel, 'What is the point if I cannot carry my party and my parliamentary colleagues with me?'."

Mr Blair told the first annual North-east Economic Forum it was a myth that "middle-class parents aspire and working class parents don't".

He said: "I want a school system in which middle-class and lower-income families children mix happily together and where there are sufficient numbers of good schools to make a parental choice a reality. And where schools aren't good, the power lies with people, parents and teachers to effect change. That is why I am so restless for change. Not because I want to pick another fight for the sake of it - I have more than enough of them - but because there remain schools, not some but hundreds of them, where fewer than half the children get the results they need at 16.

"When for all the progress, still 17,000 children leave school every year without any qualifications, I cannot rest. I will not."

David Cameron, the shadow Education Secretary called Mr Blair's proposals "tired and half-hearted", but added: "In the twilight of his premiership, Mr Blair finally wants to move in the right direction, but in the face of a divided cabinet and a divided party, he is unable to. Where the Government want genuine reforms, we will support them."