The man for Middle England?

Stephen Dorrell, ex-Tory minister and ex-party spokesman on education and employment, has been keeping eclectic company of late.

Last month he drove up to Blackpool during the Labour party conference to share a platform with Stephen Byers, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The occasion was a Fabian Society fringe meeting on the future of public services.

Last week he called on James Tooley at the right-wing think tank Institute for Economic Affairs.

His manoeuvres are being seen as an attempt to seize the intellectual leadership of the pro-Europe, left of his party. He describes himself as a liberal - and Professor Tooley, while going so far down the same road, finds him a tad too interventionist for his tastes.

Professor Tooley wants to sweep away the constraints of the state and scrap the national curriculum and performance tables. Mr Dorrell believes the state must provide an education and health system that guarantees users equity of access, but gives providers maximum freedom over its delivery.

Mr Dorrell told The TES: "My privilege as a backbencher is to be able to put forward ideas that can be taken up without it being said they are Tory policy. The party has to be seen to be interested in a selection of ideas without looking as if it is putting forward a draft Bill.

"It is politically important for the Conservative party because there has been a suspicion that our agenda has been different from Middle England's. The suspicion is that we have not been sufficiently committed to the delivery of high quality education and we must show this is unfounded."

He also believes education policy is a fertile area for attacking the Government. "The Department for Education and Employment is creating a huge bureaucracy in which people feel they are just a cog in the machine. Pay is determined centrally, teaching methods are determined centrally, and that enhances the sense of powerlessness," he said.

The model he suggests is based on GPs' surgeries. Schools would be set up,for example by a trust, and would employ their own staff, provide a service to meet local needs and be paid by the state. He believes that a huge amount of money held in charitable trusts would be freed for education, if the state paid the running costs.

"People can choose different ways of life and should be able to choose different sorts of education to suit that life," he said.

Schools would provide a core curriculum, based on basic skills, and would inculcate pupils with a basic set of shared values and experiences. Exam tables would help parents choose.

During the Fabian fringe meeting, Mr Dorrell said there must be greater scope for education funding to be redistributed to those who most need it. Unfortunately, Mr Byers, a victim of the train service from Newcastle to Blackpool, was not there to take him on.

During Mr Dorrell's spell as education spokesman he was criticised by the press for his low-key performance. Successor David Willetts, a more loyal follower of William Hague, is still in the hair-shirt stage of policy making - listening and repenting for the last Government's sins.

How he will react to Mr Dorrell's education policy lobs from the backbenches remains to be seen. He said: "It is useful for the party to show signs of intellectual vitality and I listen to Stephen's contributions with interest. "

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