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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 07:56 GMT
East: Education, education ...
David Woodthorpe
Politics Show East

Tony Blair
Education Act: Political legacy on the line?

Few subjects have been so close to Tony Blair's heart as education. Since 1997 his government has enacted no fewer than five major education acts under the guidance of four secretaries of state.

Now battle lines have been drawn between Labour backbenchers and a Prime Minister determined to push another education white paper through Parliament.

At stake the question of who or what controls our schools.

Should they be independent trusts, operating within the state sector and free to all as the white paper argues or remain part of a broad family ultimately controlled by local education authorities.

House of Commons observers believe that up to 120 Labour backbenchers could rebel over the latest proposals not least fears that the changes would bring student selection by the backdoor and at the same time hand public assets - the school buildings and playing fields - to these newly constituted trust schools.

Support for the White Paper has come from the opposition benches where Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged his backing pleading with Tony Blair to be bold with his reforms and not to appease his own backbenchers.

However this political bear trap and the determined opposition prompted watering down of some elements of the White Paper.

For many teachers cooperation rather than competition between schools and for pupils has been the watchword of their philosophy.

Many fear the that the result of the Education White Paper will set school against school.

Penny Westwood is the Head Teacher of the Northampton School for Girls.

It is a specialist school with 1700 pupils; the first in the country to specialise in music.

It is the only single sex girls school in Northampton and it is heavily oversubscribed.

In order to maintain its truly comprehensive intake Penny Westwood worked with the Local Authority to develop an admissions policy that recruits equally from children across all the academic bands.

Penny Westwood does not see the advantages of Trust schools, nor does she agree that its proposal to let successful schools like hers expand is a good one.

Mrs Westwood said: "We would not like to expand. It would damage the ethos of the school.

"We do not wish to operate in a way that damages other schools around us.

"It is my belief that as a Head teacher in a town, my responsibility is first and foremost to the children in my school but equally, I have a responsibility to all the children in the town.

"We want to work in partnership with all those who have that responsibility, with other schools and the local authority.

"If we took more children, another school would have empty places and would start to have budgetary difficulties and that means that those children would be in a less favourable educational environment."

The jury is still out on whether the latest concessions to Labour backbenchers will appease them or embolden them to ask for more, as Norwich South MP Dr Ian Gibson has demanded.

Tony Blair is committed to stepping down before the next General Election.

Education reform may cement his legacy or provide a politically fatal lesson in handling recalcitrant backbenchers.

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