Blunkett's band wastes no time

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The success of the Labour Government will largely depend on the success of the Department for Education and Employment, said David Blunkett at his first press conference since being made Secretary of State.

The party's manifesto put education and raising standards to the fore: and Mr Blunkett says he will be expected to deliver. The signs are that his ministry is moving quickly to set this in motion. A White Paper will be published, possibly as early as next month. This will set out the vision and objectives of the Government and outline its strategies. It will also provide the basis of a major education Bill in the autumn.

The new Education Secretary, buoyed up by Labour's landslide victory, is also deciding whether a short Bill on class sizes, which will stop expenditure on assisted places, will be needed almost immediately. A Government source said: "It is important there are no more assisted places from this September and the need for a quick Bill is being discussed."

A key pledge the Labour party made in its election manifesto is to cut class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds.

Mr Blunkett has said he will hold regular summits with the education community, including the unions, parents' groups and governors. The first is planned for the end of this month. He says this will be a genuine consultation exercise and will inform the drafting of the Bill as well as addressing other issues.

He also intends the DFEE to be a more open organisation and expects Michael Bichard, the permanent secretary, to be a more visible and accessible presence.

The main focus of the Bill will be measures to raise standards. Mr Blunkett has said he is more concerned about standards than structures. His legacy is a wide range of different schools: private, local authority, grant-maintained, grammar, secondary modern, city technology colleges, voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled and specialist schools. He says his priority is to raise standards in all these.

Professor Michael Barber, who has been seconded from his post as dean of new initiatives at London University's Institure of Education to head a new Standards and Effectiveness Unit within the DFEE, has been brought in to front the Government's standards initiative. He is expected to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty in the real world of education, following his brief foray as part of the education association which closed down Hackney Downs school.

Stephen Byers has been appointed as minister for school standards and will co-ordinate school effectiveness and improvement and oversee the Government's numeracy and literacy strategies. According to a government source the DFEE is keen to get the 3Rs ball rolling as quickly as possible and will be making a number of announcements soon.

But the Bill may also have to look at structures. Labour policy is to set up three categories of school: community, foundation and aided. Civil servants say that, while this is potentially complicated in terms of framing the legislation, there is no reason why it cannot be done in the first Bill.

The White Paper will also address the setting up of a General Teaching Council, target-setting and class sizes. The election manifesto sees a GTC playing a vital role in setting and defending standards.

The principle of education action zones will be outlined. The intention is to identify areas of low achievement and establish a body to focus on the problems, made up of a partnership between schools, businesses and the local authority. Expert teachers and experienced heads will be encouraged into the area, and homework clubs and literacy and numeracy centres will be opened. The intention is to launch the zones with pilot schemes. Estelle Morris, the junior minister responsible for schools and standards, is responsibl e for this policy area.

The Government has been left with the rump of the Tories' 1997 Education Act. The timing of the general election meant the Conservatives had to jettison large parts of the Act including increased selection and more powers for grant-maintained schools, to get the rest (new discipline measures and target-setting) on to the statute book. Labour may now wish to amend parts of the Act, particularly the section on home-school contracts, and may also need to legislate for its policy of a "fresh start" for failed schools.

The Government will be able to scrap nursery vouchers without legislation but has agreed to honour any outstanding vouchers. Sir Ron Dearing is due to publish his report on higher education in July. It is thought that this will be too late to include HE legislation in the autumn Bill. A Government source said: "It's too early to say."

Mr Blunkett was in post the day after the election and called into the Department to let Lucy, his guide dog, have a brief sniff at the corridors of power. In truth as Shadow Secretary he had already made contact with the permanent secretary's team. But since his arrival, the DFEE officials have been taken aback at the speed at which their new boss is moving.

Labour's education team

David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

Stephen Byers, minister for school standards, responsible for school improvement and literacy and numeracy strategy.

Estelle Morris, parliamentary under secretary of state for school standards, responsible for the role of local education authorities, education action zones, review of the national curriculum, teacher training, truancy and discipline.

Andrew Smith, minister for employment and disability rights, responsible for Welfare to Work.

Alan Howarth, parliamentary under secretary of state for employment, responsible for employment service and the Job Seekers scheme.

Kim Howells, parliamentary under secretary of state for lifelong learning,responsible for Investors in People, national education and training targets, career service, public-private partnership.

Baroness Blackstone, minister for education and employment in the House of Lords, responsible for higher and further education and lifelong learning.

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