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Blair ready for key role in education

Tony Blair appears set to take a more interventionist role in developing education policy than previous leaders of the Labour party.

His office has set up a private briefing for the Labour leader with leading educationists later this month and other seminars may follow.

Although the arrangements have been made in consultation with David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, they signal a more direct input on education from the leader than has been the case in recent years.

The decision that Mr Blair needed to be "brought up to speed" on key issues was taken well before the well-publicised row over whether the party was still considering imposing an extension of VAT on private school fees.

Approaches to Tim Brighouse, chief education officer in Birmingham, and Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele, were made before Christmas.

The first session will cover work that has been done on improving standards in schools and will go over ground already examined by Mr Blunkett in his discussions with the two professors.

Future seminars may include the difficult area of higher education funding and student support, but no dates have yet been fixed. Invitations to attend the seminars are likely to be limited to Mr Blair's policy team, the education team and MPs with a special interest in education.

The demands on Mr Blair's time mean the seminars have to be carefully targeted. As yet, there are no plans for sessions on grant-maintained schools, the most politically difficult of policy areas.

The education team has begun preliminary discussions with heads of grant-maintained schools. Mr Blunkett met members heads from the Association of Grant Maintained Schools Heads last month and another meeting is planned. The standing advisory committee of grant-maintained schools is also to write to Mr Blunkett.

Following that stage, Mr Blunkett is due to talk to a select group of chief education officers and councillors from the metropolitan areas on February 21. Mr Blair may also be there.

The Blair office insisted this week that it is working in concert with the education team and dismissed suggestions that Mr Blair intends to create a separate think tank on education.

According to one observer, the seminars are an indication that education policy is being seen by Mr Blair as a priority. "It is important he (Mr Blair) knows what the issues are and what Labour in power might be able to do, " he said.

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