Pace-setter's remit to widen

Geraldine Hackett

Fate has been kind to David Blunkett in that John Major's decision to abolish the Department of Employment probably means he will emerge in the next few weeks heading a larger back-bench team.

Most insiders expect Mr Blunkett to add employment to his present portfolio in the changes that will follow the Shadow Cabinet elections due in just over a week.

His fortunes are riding high, mainly because he has managed to defuse the potentially damaging internal row over the future of grant-maintained schools with a policy that removes their funding advantages and brings them within local planning.

The process was made harder because Labour leader Tony Blair had chosen to send his son to the grant-maintained London Oratory.

The others in the education team have stayed in the background, though they are said to work well together. Bryan Davies, a former polytechnic lecturer, is the sole survivor from the Ann Taylor era, and has retained his responsibility for further and higher education. His silence has much to do with the fact that Labour is reluctant to concede that it has little choice over graduate repayment of student loans, though he is also preparing a policy paper on the divide between academic and vocational education.

Much of the leg-work in developing Labour's youth policy has fallen to Peter Kilfoyle, MP for Liverpool Walton and former Militant baiter on Merseyside. He has the widest brief, taking in schools and under-fives policy.

The team also includes Estelle Morris, one of the Blair appointments to the Whips' office. Ms Morris, who taught at the Sidney Stringer comprehensive in Coventry before becoming an MP, has the job of making sure back-benchers are kept informed on the development of policy.

Mr Blunkett has recognised her enthusiasm for education and included her in his policy meetings. Apart from the core team, Mr Blunkett has deliberately drawn on the talents of several of the more recent arrivals in the House, with a particular interest in education.

Margaret Hodge, the former leader of Islington council, has a brief on nursery education. Labour is keen to ensure the Tories do not steal a march on them in promising to expand places for three and four-year-olds. The others who attend fortnightly meeting in Mr Blunkett's office can include Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge and another former teacher (special interest: information technology); Greg Pope, MP for Hyndburn (special interest: special needs) ; Tony Wright, a former university lecturer, MP for Cannock and Burntwood (special interest: adult education), and David Jamieson, MP for Plymouth Devonport.

The delicate balancing act for the education team is dealing with a leader's office that is knowledgeable on education - unlike during John Smith's leadership. There is no regular meeting between the two offices, but David Miliband, in overall charge of the party's policy development, keeps a close eye on education.

He can draw on the ideas that he worked on during his days at the left of centre think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, and his involvement in the Social Justice Commission.

Both the Blunkett and Blair offices listen to advice from sympathetic academics, most notably Professor Michael Barber, the National Union of Teachers' former education officer-turned academic who is the architect of the Fresh Start proposals, whereby failing schools are closed and re-opened with a new name and new staff.

After a year in the job, Mr Blunkett appears confident and secure. He has even gained a spending commitment - on capping class size in the early years of primary school - from the Treasury team. Far more MPs are now involved in policy, but the tough pace is set by Mr Blunkett himself.

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