Child of Major comes of age

It is five years since the Tories merged the departments of education and employment to create the DFEE. Nicolas Barnard looks back

IN retrospect it seems utterly predictable, but five years ago this week John Major's decision to merge the departments of education and employment caught everyone on the hop.

Agreed, announced and implemented in a single day as part of Major's cabinet reshuffle after he had successfully retained the Tory party leadership, the move caused upheaval in Sanctuary Buildings, the Department for Education's then spanking new headquarters.

Michael Portillo, then at Employment, reportedly looked shaken as he left Number 10 (he went on to Defence where he could happily make embarrassing speeches about the SAS). Each department feared it was being taken over by the other.

However, despite the odd cynic suggesting the new body be called the Department for Education and Training - DFEAT for short - the common verdict now is that the decision proved the right one. The new Learning and Skills Bill provides a fitting conclusion to half a decade of integration of the worlds of work and learning.

"The linking of employability skills to education is obvious and fundamental," said Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Technology Colleges Trust and adviser both to David Blunkett and his Torypredecessor, Gillian Shephard.

Sir Cyril has credited the merger with helping the spread of vocational qualifications. Sir Ron Dearing's review of further education and the creation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from separate vocational and academic quangos accelerated the process.

In the early years, there was talk of a culture-clash between hands-on employment staff and the more cerebral, policy-driven education side. Heads reportedly had to be knocked together.

But that has changed since Labour's election, with the huge increase in practical intervention by education staff to raise standards. Outside advisers - chief among them Michael Barber - have come in in great numbers. Seconded headteachers, business consultants and academics now occupy many desks and the department is now regarded as more approachable - although not necessarily for journalists.

But not everything has changed with the change of government. Tory minister Tim Boswell reportedly got trapped in a Sanctuary Buildings lift. Estelle Morris will sympathise as the same thing happened to her last year.

And Mr Blunkett's dog, Lucy, was not the first canine incumbent. Tory Cheryl Gillan's Jack Russell, Tizzy, was there first, providing civil servants with an excuse for a fag-break to take her for walkies.

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