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Barber stakes out Woodhead country

The decision to bring in the academic Michael Barber at senior level in the Department for Education and Employment signals the scale of direct intervention in schools being planned by the new administration.

The tacit convention that central government sets out national guidelines for the content of lessons, but leaves the management of schools to local education authorities - or, in the case of grant-maintained schools, the Funding Agency for Schools - is about to be comprehensively breached.

Professor Barber this week left his post as dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education to head a newly-created unit at the heart of the DFEE with the remit of developing strategies for raising standards in schools.

The intention is to build on the work being done by the school effectiveness team, currently headed by Michael Stark, which has been looking in detail at the progress of schools judged by the Office for Standards in Education to be failing to provide adequate education.

As head of the unit, Professor Barber will have more leverage than the senior civil servant he has now become. Within the DFEE, it may well be the first time that a political appointee has been given a specific civil servant role, though such quasi-politi cal posts have been created in the past by the Chancellor. It is understood the appointment was met with some resistance from the Civil Service and was confirmed after the personal intervention of Tony Blair.

The tenure of Professor Barber is tied directly to David Blunkett's patronage, but in practice he will be part of the directorate headed by Peter Owen, the director general of schools. However, the nature of his appointment means he will also have direct access to the Education and Employment Secretary.

The new unit is likely to have around 40 staff, 10 more than the existing school effectiveness team. The initial plan is that the unit will consist of three sections: one dealing with failing schools; one that takes on the task of examining the school improvement plans of local education authoritie s and the third directing the national plans on literacy and numeracy.

The creation of a new empire within the DFEE directly accountable to Mr Blunkett may generate a degree of anxiety within both the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (the quango that advises on testing and the curriculum), and the schools inspectorate, OFSTED, which is a separate government department.

As an academic, Professor Barber is likely to express views more freely than is normal for a civil servant and will be able to speak with equivalent authority to Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, who has taken on a role as public commentator on the reasons for poor standards.

The view within the DFEE is that the centre of power will rest in Sanctuary Buildings.

The tensions that have marked relations between OFSTED and the DFEE are likely to have been lessened by the election of a new Government.

The political fortunes of OFSTED and, in particular, of Mr Woodhead, will no longer be promoted by an alliance with advisers in the Number Ten policy unit, who have lost their jobs in the wake of Labour's election victory.

However, there remains scope for territorial in-fighting between the experts on the most effective means of raising standards in schools.

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