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Labour axes standards unit

Government accused of knee-jerk reaction in drive to cut jobs, report Warwick Mansell and Jon Slater

The Government's standards and effectiveness unit, which has for the past seven years overseen Labour's centralised testing and target regime, is to be wound up, it was confirmed this week.

The policy unit, which launched the national literacy and numeracy strategies, was given a brief within days of Labour coming to power in 1997 to drive through the Government's education reforms.

Most of its functions are to be transferred to a team working within the schools directorate of the Department for Education and Skills.

David Hopkins, the SEU's director, is to become a senior adviser to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, with specific responsibility for the Government's innovations unit.

The changes come as the DfES seeks to make cuts of nearly a third of its staff by 2008. The SEU employs 145 staff.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said the move reflected a loss of direction at the DfES.

He said: "This is a knee-jerk reaction from a Government that needs to get rid of civil servants' jobs to save money." A DfES spokesman said: "These changes are not about saving money, but about reshaping the department to deliver quality public services. It is total nonsense to suggest that some internal changes dilute in any way our drive for ever-higher standards."

However, the demise of the SEU will be seen as symbolising more than simply a reorganisation within Whitehall. The SEU, which had its origins in the standards and effectiveness division established by Tory education secretary John Patten in the early 1990s, was the main vehicle for the launch of Labour's first-term reforms.

Led by Professor Michael Barber from 1997 to 2001, it developed the key stage 3 strategies and a string of other policies, from Excellence in Cities and education action zones to the controversial fresh start initiative.

It appointed headteacher advisers from outside the civil service and was seen by some as an attempt by David Blunkett, the former education secretary, to fast-track ideas through the Whitehall machine.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said its passing was logical.

He said: "Under Michael Barber and David Blunkett, it was a time of constant revolution, much of it fomented by the SEU. Now, the SEU fulfils a different role. It has become more one of maintenance of initiatives, rather than of development. Since the department itself also does this maintenance work, there seems to be less of a point to the SEU."

* Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union voted overwhelmingly at their annual conference this week to support a campaign of opposition, including industrial action, against the DfES job cuts.

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