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Secret talks to map out blockbuster legislation

Top secret "focus groups", pioneered by Labour before the general election, are meeting to help shape Government education policy.

Brainstorming sessions are being held about once a week at the Department for Education and Employment, according to a prominent member of one of the groups.

Teachers, governors, parents and others are helping draw up plans for the forthcoming White Paper and the major education Bill containing many of Labour's school reforms which will follow.

Issues under discussion include how to reduce teachers' paperwork burden, how the new system for nursery education will work and how to raise school standards.

No announcement has been made about the meetings and their members have been sworn to secrecy.

The round-table approach marks a radical change in the way consultation over new legislation has traditionally taken place, when interested parties were called in separately to see ministers and civil servants and asked to comment.

It is thought the groups will continue to meet after the education Bill is published to clarify further how it will be put into effect.

A prominent group member said: "The focus groups are looking at how commitments in the Labour party's manifesto can be turned into reality. They are meetings of civil servants and organisations to brainstorm solutions using papers prepared by civil servants.

"The Government is keen to tap the expertise of teachers and people who represent all shades of opinion and to get the best advice they can.

"There's no time to call in parties one-by-one to comment. They need to gather people round the table and get as good a consensus as they can while the White Paper is being written. We are being asked to comment on a range of issues and things we can reach consensus on will appear in the White Paper."

Another group member said: "The problem is how to put the rhetoric from the manifesto into legislation. These focus groups are intended to work out the nuts and bolts. It's going to be a blockbuster of a Bill so the thinking is that some of these groups will carry on to look at the detail."

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