LONDON (Reuters) - An embattled British minister and close ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair won a grace period on Thursday when she promised to toughen rules stopping sex offenders teaching in schools.
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly silenced some of her critics with a statement in parliament but still faces a rough ride pushing through contested education reforms, a key part of Blair's public service reform programme.
A political storm blew up around Kelly when it was revealed this month that some registered sex offenders had been granted special dispensation to teach in schools.
The affair had raised questions about the prime minister's judgement in choosing Kelly for the job and his ability to persuade his restive Labour party to back his wider education reforms in parliament.
Defeat on the education bill would dent Blair's authority, raising doubts over the ability to govern of a premier who is hounded by questions about when he will hand the top job to his finance minister Gordon Brown.
Blair won a third term last May but Labour's majority was slashed, partly due to anger over the Iraq war. He has said he will not serve a fourth term.
The latest furore began with the revelation that Kelly's department had allowed a man cautioned by police for viewing child pornography to work as a sports teacher.
"It is time ... to overhaul the system," Kelly told parliament. "Nobody who is convicted or cautioned for child sex offences should be allowed to teach in schools."
Some 90 Labour lawmakers and former party leader Neil Kinnock oppose the wider school reforms, fearing they will lead to selection by ability that would favour wealthier families.
Ministers have already signalled changes to their plans as they seek to appease rebels and win the vote, expected in March.
"People are pretty angry about this," rebel Labour parliamentarian Ian Gibson told Reuters about the reforms. "It's Blair's flagship policy ... if he can't get it all he might have to settle for something less."
But the opposition Conservative Party, reinvigorated under new leader David Cameron, is poised to leap on any climbdown.
Education reform is just one hurdle facing Blair, whose plans for national identity cards have also run into opposition. He is also set to make controversial choices this year on resolving a pensions crisis and expanding nuclear energy.
The Conservatives, while welcoming new controls over sex offenders, said the affair had exposed an absence of "strong leadership" at Kelly's department and suggested she would struggle to regain parents' confidence.
Child protection is an emotive subject in Britain after the 2002 murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, aged 10, by Ian Huntley, who worked at their school despite being a suspected sex offender.
The opposition asks why it has taken the government 18 months to implement safety recommendations that followed those murders.