Loyal chairman reveals a rebellious streak

IN December 1999, a TES headline about Barry Sheerman, then new chairman of the education select committee asked "independent chairman or Blair's poodle?" He had a reputation as ultra-loyal, having claimed it was difficult to find anything in the Government to criticise.

But the MP for Huddersfield, now leading the commitee's secondary education inquiry, has shown a rebellious streak as well, likely to speak out against a policy that interests him, but at other times fiercely defensive of the New Labour project.

At 62, the MP for Huddersfield is a veteran of 19 years on the backbenches and has some slightly eccentric campaigns behind him, including once calling for Buckingham Palace to be razed to the ground and replaced by the work of young architects.

The undoubted low-point of his chairmanship was a row last year over Laura Spence, the state school student rejected by Oxford despite achieving five As at A-level.

Former committee member Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat, accused him of "fawning", alleging that comments criticising Chancellor Gordon Brown's part in the affair had been expunged from a report.

But Mr Sheerman won plaudits this year for a rigorous inquiry into the axing of the individual learning accounts training subsidy scheme.

He is also concerned about the way the education service is increasingly controlled by Number 10 and the Treasury.

And after hauling in the then schools minister Stephen Timms last year as part of the new annual "performance reviews" for ministers, he said: "Is there a secret cupboard the secretary of state has that she doesn't let you have the key to?"

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