Leading article: A missed opportunity for more radical reform


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.

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