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New Labour's one-time 'poodle' bares his teeth

Ed Balls' plan to cut #163;2bn from the schools budget was not well received by Barry Sheerman, powerful chairman of the Commons schools select committee. As his party prepares for conference, the MP tells Richard Vaughan that he is determined to defend its education legacy

Ed Balls' plan to cut #163;2bn from the schools budget was not well received by Barry Sheerman, powerful chairman of the Commons schools select committee. As his party prepares for conference, the MP tells Richard Vaughan that he is determined to defend its education legacy

I am greeted by Barry Sheerman in his office at the very top of Portcullis House in Whitehall. It is an untidy mess of papers and stacks of this and that. He makes half an attempt to clear it, but then gives up. It's a good insight into an MP's life.

It is just a few days until the Labour Party conference and the chairman of the schools select committee is looking relaxed. It is still a few weeks until Parliament returns from recess and the MP for Huddersfield tells me he is enjoying the "huffing and puffing" that comes with conference season.

Among the political machinations was Schools Secretary Ed Balls' announcement on Sunday that he is instructing his department to look at chopping #163;2 billion from the schools budget.

The move comes as Labour changes tack on how it can retain power after the general election. Instead of being the party of investment, it has taken just two weeks to reposition itself as the party of slashed budgets and "wiser" public spending.

To deliver the education cuts, Mr Balls would hope to coerce a third of all schools to become federations, thus generating a host of efficiency savings - from energy bills and shared administration to tighter teacher pay deals and fewer heads and deputy heads.

For Mr Sheerman, the sudden talk of cuts is all part of pre-conference posturing, but he says the ideas put forward by the Schools Secretary were "very worrying".

"I'm going to be seeing (Ed Balls) in front of my committee and I'm going to be asking him what the hell is he up to?" he says. "How quickly can you do this? Because I haven't heard of anyone in the educational network that I move in who thinks it's thought through."

The need to cut public spending has been apparent for some time, he adds. It is either that or raise taxation. But according to Mr Sheerman, the idea of culling headteachers to reduce school spending would undo much of Labour's work on education since it came to power.

"The critical thing about schools is that they need a leadership," he says. "Yes, you can cut down administration. If you have three schools which are working together from an admin view, you don't need three school bursars. I'd buy that. But are you telling me there is not going to be a head on each campus?

"I've never been to a school where you didn't need one person everybody knows running the school."

He adds: "If we're putting all this money into leadership in schools, are we now saying that there is no career structure leading through? What happens to all these deputy heads and other people? It's one of the great achievements of this past 12 years."

An area Mr Sheerman says could be ripe for slimming down is what he affectionately calls the "Empire" - central government as administered by Labour.

"I was speaking to (outsourcing conglomerate) Capita the other day and they say that local government is now much more lean, mean and efficient," he says. "And it's had to be. They said if you really want to save money, you need to trim government departments. I have some sympathy for that."

He seems to catch himself with this last sentence. "I sound a bit like one of the other parties because the other conferences are on," he says. "But I look at some of the Empire and it could be trimmed back."

There is something wistful in the way he talks about the "Empire" - as if it were something beginning to crumble around him.

Mr Sheerman was a key supporter of Tony Blair, and in recent months has been active in trying to keep the former PM's New Labour legacy alive, even if that means deposing current premier Gordon Brown.

It is clear Mr Sheerman believes that some things are bigger than individuals. In his eyes, the Labour Party is certainly bigger than Mr Brown, and education is bigger than any Westminster politician.

This outlook allows the west Londoner to have a more open view of what is good for education in England. The Tories' plans for introducing "new academies" - a mix of Swedish free schools and US charter schools - is one he readily supports.

"I like it a lot," he says. "The charter schools in New York are giving kids living in very distracting environments a safe and supportive environment from 7.30am to 6pm. One of the radical things we need is ... to have more of a child's time. Someone worked out it's about 10 per cent that the school gets hold of."

He knows this because he has been there and seen it. He jokes that no one visits more schools than he does - apart from a schools inspector. Certainly, no politician visits more schools, or indeed knows more about education.

This lack of knowledge is one of the main problems with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, he says. If the department were a school, he adds, it would be in special measures because of the level of disturbance it experiences.

"With the exception of David Blunkett, who was there from 1997 to 2001, you often see the secretary of state moving on as well as all the junior team," he says. "It's difficult to remember who have been the education ministers now. They come, they go. The churn is absolutely appalling."

But despite this, Mr Sheerman says it can only be a good thing that Mr Brown's right-hand man is in control of the DCSF.

"It is always good to have someone who is powerful, who has the Prime Minister's ear as Secretary of State," he says.

"My concerns for the DCSF would be if Ed Balls went and was replaced by someone who was seventh or eighth in the pecking order. What happens when you're negotiating for that department against the likes of the Health Secretary and Justice Secretary?

"If you don't have someone really powerful heading up that department to say, 'I am going to join this with the Health Department and this with the Home Office,' you could be in real trouble."

Be that as it may, Messrs Brown and Balls are taking education in a very different direction from the one Mr Blair would like. Mr Sheerman is adamant that Mr Brown believed in the "education, education, education" mantra of New Labour's early years, but the Blairite says the plan has been significantly "watered down" since Mr Brown took the top job.

"I think they both take it seriously - I just think they have a different take on it," he says. "I don't think either of them is committed to that diversity element that Blair was so keen on. Blair really believed in this argument, and academies are central to that. Gordon and Ed were always very cool on academies.

"The programme has been much watered down since Gordon became Prime Minister, so I think diversity and choice is something they are not so keen on."

Mr Sheerman refuses to be drawn on his actions to unsettle the Prime Minister ahead of the Cabinet reshuffle in June this year.

He states merely that it has all been reported already. But he certainly does not think his party's chances are over.

"I think it's still very open", he says. "I've never known - and I've been in politics a long time - people to be less enthused about all of the party leaders. This is a remarkable period in our country's history.

"You must say about Gordon that he has played a major role in getting a remedy to the meltdown in the global economy. But even after all he has done, people don't rush out with enthusiasm. But neither do they about Nick Clegg or David Cameron."

Even after 30 years, it is clear that he still cares just as much about politics as he did when he first won his seat in Huddersfield East back in 1979. Mr Sheerman had previously been painted as a jobbing MP. He was often described as a New Labour "poodle", but he is now regarded more as its guard dog. There are even rumours that he will be posted as the new chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

"People like me who are fed up with our performance in the local elections and our European elections, we showed our discontent," he says. "We said we would give Gordon until the conference to think about the direction and leadership of the party. We all stuck to that, and I shall be going to Brighton next week to make my judgment."

Make no mistake: when he speaks, Labour party members, journalists and the wider public will all be tuning an ear to hear what he has to say.


1940: Born Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex

1951: Hampton Grammar School

1965: Graduated with economics degree from London School of Economics

1966: Lecturer at University of Wales, Swansea

1979: Elected MP for Huddersfield East

1983: MP for Huddersfield, Labour spokesman on education and employment

1988: Shadow deputy home secretary

1992: Spokesman for disabled rights

2001: Chair, education and skills select committee

2007: Chair, children, schools and families select committee.

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