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Blair prepares to publish Education Bill

By Staff
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LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government is preparing to publish its Education Bill after weeks of stiff opposition from backbench parliamentarians, teaching unions and education experts.

Many of the government's proposals, on better discipline in schools and more targeted education for individual pupils, have been broadly welcomed.

But plans to give schools greater freedoms from local authority control and more power over admissions have provoked a firestorm of controversy.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly says she is confident the bill -- due to be published on Tuesday -- will pass into law after making a series of concessions to dissident Labour MPs.

Blair last week declared that ''reassurances'' made on pupil selection and the role of local authorities had dealt with the concerns of MPs threatening to vote against the proposals, first outlined in a government discussion document, or white paper, last October.

Labour MP John Denham, a leading member of a group of over 90 MPs who had signed up to a critique of the proposals, said over the weekend he was now ''more optimistic'' that many of the rebel MPs would support the bill after behind-the-scenes lobbying from Kelly.

But with a working majority of 69 in the House of Commons Blair could be outnumbered by just 35 rebel backbenchers.

That would leave Blair with the politically unpalatable prospect of relying on support from the opposition Conservatives - who support the proposals -- to pass the measures into law.

The government says greater school independence will help raise educational standards for all in England, by promoting choice and allowing popular schools to expand.

Opponents of the proposals fear the plans will do the opposite, creating a two-tier system favouring the children of the middle classes, leaving the poor and disadvantaged behind.

Those fears were stoked by the language used by Blair in his introduction to the white paper, titled ''Higher Standards, Better Schools For All'', in which he said the aim was ''the creation of a system of independent non-fee paying state schools''.

To appease their critics, Kelly and Blair have been forced to promise tougher controls over secondary school admissions than are currently in place.

Schools will be explicitly barred from interviewing pupils and will be required to adhere more strictly to the code of practice governing admissions.

Blair and Kelly have also backed down over plans to bar the creation of any new ''community'' schools under the control of local authorities - the type which make up the vast majority of schools in England.

TRUST SCHOOLS A critical Education Select Committee review of the government's proposals accused it of creating a mess of its own making by overselling the idea of schools gaining independence by switching to so-called Trust status.

The white paper declared that: ''Every school will be able to acquire a self-governing Trust which will give them the freedom to work with new partners to help develop their ethos and raise standards.'' But the Select Committee said the Trust schools were little different to England's existing 879 state-funded foundation schools, which operate with greater freedoms than directly controlled local authority primary and secondary schools.

''By taking one type of foundation school and giving it a new name and a high profile, the Government has managed to make a cause celebre out of something which already exists and for which no further legislation is apparently necessary,'' the committee said.

Reuters

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