No fags, just a smokescreen

Forget smoke-filled rooms and tables groaning beneath piles of paper. Britain's future education policies are being decided over tea, sandwiches and chocolate biscuits during brain-storming sessions involving the great and the good from all sections of the service.

The mammoth discussions can go on for up to four hours at a time, generally between 11am and 3pm, with members allowed only 15 minutes for a lunch-break or "just about time to go to the loo" as one put it.

Most of the 100-plus members have to travel hundreds of miles to the meetings, which can occur as frequently as every month or only once or twice a year.

"It is virtually a three-line whip," said one head. "Diaries are consulted to make sure everyone is free and I don't think anyone would dream of not turning up."

Task force members are not paid but can recoup travel expenses - although one said this was "frowned upon" by the group chairman. Others said they would meet the cost themselves or claim from the organisations they represent.

Schools can also claim for supply cover for absent heads and deputies, though most seem to be waiving this right.

Hospitality allowances appear to depend on each group's internal expenditure, suggesting the existence of budgets. Certainly the snacks on offer vary from "sort of kebab things" described by one member, to the chocolate digestives and jam-filled biscuits enjoyed by another.

The meetings are normally held at Sanctuary Buildings, the clinically-clean, tropical greenhouse that is the Westminster home of the Department for Education and Employment.

However, at least one task force is known to have travelled to the North, requiring overnight accommodation, while another is believed to be planning a fact-finding trip abroad.

Other meetings are understood to have been held at the headquarters of the lecturers' union, NATFHE, in London.

One member hung up before The TES was able to establish why his group moved outside London for a meeting, or where they stayed and how much it cost, but the DFEE almost certainly picked up the bill.

Further evidence of the existence of budgets comes amid claims that Coopers amp; Lybrand, the independent management consultancy, is carrying out research for one of the task forces, and is due to report back at the end of this month.

So if members are not being paid, have to travel long distances to meetings and are not even given a proper lunch, why do it?

"It is a great honour to have been chosen," said one head. "My school has already benefited immeasurably from all the ideas and initiative s I have been able to implement as a result of having spoken to others in my group.

"It is also a privilege to be part of a consultation process which shapes Government education policies."

Reporting team: Ngaio Crequer, Clare Dean, Dorothy Lepkowska, Ian Nash, Frances Rafferty and Ben Russell

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