The politics column - Martin Bright revisits the great education divide

Downing Street is convinced the education reforms can be sold as progressive. The Prime Minister's a

Take a look at the following front-page story: "All Britain's state schools will be converted into independent charitable bodies under plans to be announced tomorrow. In the most significant education reforms since comprehensives were set up in the 1960s, schools would become 'locally maintained', leaving councils with only residual planning and advisory powers." Sound familiar? It could have come from any newspaper covering Ruth Kelly's education white paper. The latest round of reforms will turn schools into "self-governing trusts" regulated by the Charity Commission - a radical departure, trailed by the Prime Minister himself as "a pivotal moment" for his government.

The words above come not from current hyperbole but from a story I wrote in the last days of John Major's government. At the end of January 1997, the prime minister had called an emergency cabinet meeting at Chequers "to decide the balance between radicalism and consolidation". There was talk of cabinet splits, with moderate voices such as the chancellor, Ken Clarke, urging caution before introducing further market reforms into public services. But the PM was undeterred by warnings from his colleagues that schools in the most deprived areas would be left behind. By April the idea had become policy.

The proposals were the last throw of the dice by a desperate government fast running out of ideas. The shadow education secretary, David Blunkett, laughed at the idea, saying that if local education authorities didn't exist then any sensible government would have to invent them. In 1997 Labour promised to deliver "what works", unfettered by ideology, whether the dogma of the state or market. But here we are again, the same idea heralded by the Prime Minister as his model for the public sector.

David Cameron, the present shadow education spokesman, is right to claim this as a Tory policy. But he is wrong to say that Labour is revisiting the grant-maintained model, which gave schools extra funding if they opted out of local authority control. The white paper does indeed mark a pivotal moment - so pivotal that the government has swivelled 180 degrees. It now advocates a radical extension of the grant-maintained experiment so roundly rejected by the electorate in the landslide that brought Labour to power.

Much has been made of the splits in cabinet over this white paper: the Prime Minister's attitude to the reservations of his two most senior colleagues, John Prescott and Gordon Brown, was described to me as "robust". It is entirely understandable that Prescott and Brown would wish to know the implications for their respective departments. What is more remarkable is that Blair has any cabinet allies at all, since the party has, until now, consistently rejected this Tory policy.

Downing Street is convinced the reforms can be sold as progressive. Cabinet colleagues have apparently been persuaded by bolt-ons for the poor, such as free school transport and "choice advisers" to help working-class parents find their way through the maze of secondary education. But it has become a point of principle with the Prime Minister that the public sector should be injected with the dynamism of business. The ultimate sanction of closure is designed to drive up standards in failing schools as the fear of bankruptcy drives struggling businesses.

Less than a year after the 1997 election, I travelled the country with a colleague for a three-part newspaper series grandly titled "The Great Education Divide". Examining every aspect of education from nursery to university, we found a merciless pecking order that worked in favour of children already favoured by their birth. In Birmingham we saw a secondary system brutally segregated along class lines: "The pecking order mirrors the national pattern: highly elitist private schools, selective grammar schools performing well above the national average, girls' and church comprehensives with adequate results, then the rest."

Our conclusions were bleak: "As one school achieves success and becomes oversubscribed, another is deserted by caring parents and becomes unmanageable."

Like me, my colleague was furious at the inequalities we found researching those pieces. Shortly afterwards he gave up his job as a journalist to work on education policy at the heart of government because he wanted to make a difference. Now, as Lord Adonis, he is one of the education ministers responsible for pushing through the reforms. I have never been able to understand why, after writing so passionately about the injustice of the hierarchy in education, he chose to introduce a new layer through city academies. With the new independent trusts, which will allow each school to set its own entrance criteria and compete openly for pupils, that pecking order will no longer be the unintended consequence of half a century of ill-judged reforms of our education system. It will be the driving principle.

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