Leading article: A missed opportunity for more radical reform

Share

Yesterday's long-awaited votes on the second reading of the Education Bill were always going to be as much about the Prime Minister and his authority as they were about the future of schools. And the votes, when they came - at the end of an often tedious and self-serving debate - offered Mr Blair almost as little consolation as he had feared, while stopping short of humiliation.

The Bill passed easily. But the Government suffered the expected indignity of having to rely on Conservative MPs to secure its majority. On the other hand, the Government avoided defeat on the procedural motion that followed. Ministers will at least be able to exercise control over the timetable. The backbench rebellion went only so far.

The trouble is that Mr Blair, to a large extent, has only himself to blame for his reliance on the Tories for passage of this Bill. A politician still justly admired for his deftness and assurance, he was made to look clumsy and weak. He began by hyping a Bill that entailed fairly modest structural changes, provoking a backlash among his own MPs that could have been anticipated. Education, and the school system in particular, is an area where ideology runs deep.

With several dozen Labour MPs stubbornly refusing to drop their opposition, Mr Blair then allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by the new Conservative leader, David Cameron. Mr Cameron sensed the Government's vulnerability on the Education Bill the moment he was elected. This was the first area in which he activated his policy of not opposing legislation just for the sake of opposing.

Rather than capitalising on Conservative support to keep his Education Bill intact, however, Mr Blair gambled that he would be able to change the minds of a sufficient number of his own MPs to secure passage without the Tories' help. Now he has the worst of several worlds: a watered-down Bill that has been passed only thanks to the Opposition, and a still divided party.

Hobbled both by his pledge not to fight another election and by MPs' resentment over the "mess" - as one minister recently put it -- in Iraq, Mr Blair commands less authority on his own benches than he once did. And so far as the Education Bill is concerned, this is a great pity. The secondary school system, as this year's admissions show once again, is a source of great dissatisfaction among voters, especially in Labour's urban heartland. Mr Blair understood that something had to be done if he was to honour the "education, education, education" promise of his first term.

The scheme for trust schools bears a resemblance to the grant-maintained schools favoured by the Thatcher government - a policy the Blair government reversed - but without financial incentives for change and without greatly threatening the power of local education authorities. The Thatcher echo, however weak, helps to explain why the proposal for trust schools ran into such trouble with so many Labour MPs.

What schools really want and need, however, has less to do with any change in structures or nomenclature than with the number of central directives they are required to comply with and the miles of red tape that bind them. The concern of school heads and others is that the reforms enshrined in this legislation will not address this central complaint, while ushering yet another period of uncertainty.

The Bill that was passed last night allows Mr Blair to fight another day. But it will surely turn out to be another of those cases where Mr Blair will regret that he was not more radical. The new twist was that with this Bill, uniquely, he had the opportunity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform