Leading article: A temporary stay of execution

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The Independent Online

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has overcome her first big challenge as she struggles to keep her job. The advance billing suggested her parliamentary statement yesterday on the row over sex offenders would make or break her career. The political reality was always less highly charged. Ms Kelly had been set, or had set herself, a number of achievable tasks that she accomplished comprehensively. The week before, the Tories had asked her to reveal the number of sex offenders teaching in schools. Yesterday she did so in great detail. There had been justified concerns that ministers were taking decisions on who was suited to teach in schools. She has devolved the decisions to a separate body. There were criticisms that the recommendations in the Bichard report arising from the Soham murders had not been implemented. Legislation is being introduced next month.

In truth, the row should never have centred on the conduct of one cabinet minister. The revelations of recent days raised bigger questions about the excessive micromanagement of Whitehall departments, the role of ministers across government and the fate of sex offenders who have committed relatively minor offences.

As far as it was down to her, Ms Kelly dealt efficiently with a highly emotive issue. But her second challenge demands much more than efficient management. She is responsible for promoting the schools' White Paper, the source of potentially the biggest revolt from Labour MPs since the war against Iraq. The scale of disquiet is reflected strikingly in the public opposition of the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. Until now, Lord Kinnock has not spoken out against a single policy initiated by Tony Blair. At a meeting in Westminster last night, he broke his silence.

In spite of the internal resistance, Ms Kelly has a strong hand. She shows no sign of playing it effectively. The White Paper would allow schools to innovate more freely, give more control to parents, and encourage a variety of providers to set up schools. Under current policies, poorer pupils tend to suffer as middle-class parents choose expensive homes near decent state schools or leave the state system entirely. In modest ways, the White Paper offers some hope of a revitalised state system. But the presentation has been inept. Is it a revolutionary set of proposals or incremental? Are there concessions that should have been made earlier to avoid a huge political row now? Mr Blair is largely responsible for the confusion, but a strong cabinet minister must be capable of standing up to the Prime Minister and shaping an effective strategy. Ms Kelly has shown little sign of developing a distinctive ministerial voice. She deserves to survive, but she has yet to prove she is an effective Education Secretary.

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