Richard Garner: Two compromises can ensure PM 'gets out of jail'

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The Independent Online

Today's Commons Education Select Committee report was at one stage being billed as Tony Blair's "get out of jail" card. In the end, one suspects, the full recommendations will be too much for him to swallow - especially now he is hopeful that Chancellor Gordon Brown's declared support for his reforms will win over some waverers on his back benches.

But the words of David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, may be ringing in his ears. It's either forward with Conservative support or back to the old model of schooling, said Mr Willetts.

While the main critics of the reforms - former party leader Lord Kinnock, former education secretary Baroness Morris and now the chairman of the Education Select Committee Barry Sheerman - are hardly Old Labour, forward with the Conservatives is not the rallying call Mr Blair and the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly want to hear.

Two key recommendations could be taken on board to assuage the rebels. The first is banning parental interviews and, as the select committee puts it, "other proxies for academic selection" to avoid schools selecting by stealth. The second is removing the bar on local councils opening new community comprehensive schools. The White Paper says all new schools must be independently-run "trusts" or foundation schools, which are also freed from council controls.

On the first, there has been overwhelming evidence of social segregation caused by schools selecting by stealth and the committee's recommendation would put a stop to it. On the second point, it has seemed faintly ridiculous to hear Conservative councillors begging a Labour government to allow new community comprehensives.

Finally, the committee deserves praise for its comments on "trust" schools and recognition they are not a "radical innovation". It does not need new legislation to establish them, it argues.

This argument appeared still to be raging yesterday with Ms Kelly visiting Thorpe Bay Secondary School in Southend, Essex, which wants to become a "trust", saying it needed the reforms to pass into legislation. No, it did not, argued the head of the local college, Prospects, Neil Bates, with which it wants to form a partnership. "The framework is already there," he said.

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