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Enter the standards squad

Teachers and researchers are being enlisted to work alongside civil servants in a new DFEE unit. Geraldine Hackett reports

Radical plans under way within the Department for Education and Employment provide for the recruitment of headteachers and education researchers to work alongside civil servants on strategies to raise standards in schools.

The expansion of the school effectiveness team will bring into the corridors of power at the DFEE the education establishment routinely reviled by previous Conservative administrations.

However, Gillian Shephard had sought to rehabilitate the specialists and had taken advice from Professor Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education, who has has been been appointed to head the unit. He will draw into the DFEE teachers and researchers with a track record of useful practical work.

It is only in the past three years that the DFEE has had to take on the task of directly intervening to improve the quality of education being offered in particular schools. The work has largely fallen to civil servants as a result of legislation that requires ministers to take responsibility for schools that fail to provide a minimum standard of education.

There are now 256 failing schools regularly monitored by the Office for Standards in Education and required to submit to the DFEE details of the measures they are taking to improve. Under the previous administration, advice on tackling such problems was taken from a committee that included Professor Barber.

The change in style under David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary, is that experienced practitioners will work within the DFEE, alongside officials. There are to be around 10 new posts, but in the main specialists will be seconded on short-term contracts.

According to Professor Barber, the recruits are likely to have had experience in school effectiveness work. They might be heads that have turned round failing schools or researchers that have managed a local authority school improvement project.

The intention is to gain the confidence of schools by having at the heart of the government machine education professionals as well as the more traditional dusty civil servant, he says.

The strategy marks an attempt to change the culture within the DFEE. In the past, ministers have requested the transfer of senior civil servants, but outsiders have not been brought into the bureaucracy. Political advisers have tended to act as aides to ministers, though they have been appointed to head special units in departments of government.

There appear to have been reservations expressed by the Civil Service, but not by officials in the DFEE. Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary, has long been an advocate of the Department using its leverage to make changes in the system.

The challenge for Mr Bichard is to integrate the unit into the structure in a way that does not create resentment from officials who have are to used to a pattern of working based on administering the service, rather than intervening in the difficult process of raising standards.

The high profile to be given to such policy areas as education action zones and the takeover or closure of failing schools means the DFEE will never be the same again.

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