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Last Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Blair's legacy for schools
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker
What will the English school system look like by the time Tony Blair leaves Downing Street?

Before he hands over to Gordon Brown, or anyone else, the prime minister would like to have abolished completely what his former media spokesman once infamously labelled the "bog standard" comprehensive.

He is already quite close to achieving that. There are now almost 2,800 specialist schools, city academies and city technology colleges. That is about 80% of all secondary schools in England.

This is an astonishing change. It has happened in just under a decade. It is hard to think of another period when so much structural change affected such a large proportion of schools so quickly.

The shift from grammar schools and secondary moderns to comprehensives certainly took much longer, and indeed has never quite been completed.

'Schools revolution'

The push is now on to finish this schools revolution.

Despite the backwash from the honours-for-loans affair, it seems the city academy programme is still on target. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, insists there has been no drop in interest from sponsors.

Indeed, he says the "bizarre outcome" of the bad publicity has been more sponsors coming through.

Bexley Business Academy
Mr Blair wants to see 200 academies by the end of the decade

Sir Cyril has just been reconfirmed in his role as adviser to the new Education Secretary, Alan Johnson. This great survivor is now onto his tenth successive secretary of state.

In his large London office, he shows no diminution in enthusiasm for Blair's project to transform schools. He whips out a spreadsheet showing the progress of all city academy projects.

There are now 27 city academies already open, 104 confirmed projects with opening dates and full sponsorship promised, and 117 more in the "feasibility" stage. He has no doubts that the target of 200 academies by the end of the decade will be achieved.

Sir Cyril, who works closely with Schools Minister Lord Adonis, has two main groups of schools in his sights. He has already outlined these priorities to Alan Johnson.

First, he has identified 400 schools that have been consistently under-performing for some years. All are getting fewer than 25% of pupils through five or more GCSEs at grade C or above.

Sir Cyril would like all of these to become city academies, an ambition that would double the government's current target.

Underperforming schools

His second priority is the 450 schools (many, but not all, of which lie in the under-performing category) that are still neither academies nor specialist schools.

Finally he also wants many schools to become trust schools. Indeed he claims there are already about 100 specialist schools that are ready and waiting to seek trust status once the Education and Inspections Bill becomes law.

He believes many of these will use trust status to build federations or partnerships with weaker neighbours, helping to raise standards generally.

Sir Cyril believes this completion of the Blair reforms needs to happen soon.

Otherwise, in an echo of the argument used by critics of specialist schools and academies, he says there will be a "two tier system", with a minority of schools left outside the family of specialist schools and academies.

Bill's third reading

So will Blair complete his vision: a future where every school is either an academy, a trust or - at the very least - a specialist college? Next week, this vision faces a critical barrier.

The Education and Inspections Bill, which is undoubtedly Blair's last chance at major school reform, returns to the floor of the House of Commons for its report stage and third reading.

classroom scene
Tony Blair's schools revolution still has some obstacles to overcome

Labour rebels are planning a further assault on the Bill. But they will get no help from the Conservatives who have made it quite clear that they will support the government and, indeed, will seek to strengthen the Bill so it more closely matches the prime minister's original aims.

As the Conservative spokesman, David Willetts, told journalists this week: "I am more authentically Andrew Adonis (the Schools Minister) than Andrew Adonis is."

The government, he insisted, need make no more concessions to its backbenchers as it can rely on Conservative support.

Now of course there may be more than a bit of mischief-making in this. After all, that is what opposition parties are supposed to do. But there is a longer-term agenda too.

As Mr Willetts said, it would be "extremely useful for an incoming Conservative government to have the powers that are in this Bill".

So what might a future Conservative government do with those powers? Certainly, the Conservatives would want to go further down the road of independence for schools than even Mr Blair has indicated. They would remove still more power from local education authorities.

Might this further reform include allowing commercial companies to run Trust Schools at a profit? When asked, Mr Willetts chose his words carefully: "We are not proposing for-profit schools for now but we do not rule them out for the future."

So, a lot hinges on the outcome of next week's votes in the Commons. Will the prime minister be able to complete his complete restructuring of the school system? Will the Conservatives get the platform they want for a further, more radical stage of school reforms?

Or will the Labour rebels, and the Liberal Democrats, signal the start of a fight back for the community comprehensive?

It should be an interesting few days in the House of Commons. And, of course, there is still the House of Lords to come where Lord Kinnock and Lady Estelle Morris lie in wait for the Bill.

Tony Blair's schools revolution still has some obstacles to overcome.

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