Blunkett's crusaders square up to the job

13th February 1998 at 00:00
The Government's task force on standards is well into its work, but its exact role is far from clear. Geraldine Hackett reports

The first lengthy session of the Government's standards task force involved an overnight stay for members at Windsor Great Park - to allow "greater bonding" and an early start on business.

The three ministers with responsibilities for schools were there for most of the sessions, as were top civil servants Michael Bichard, and Peter Owen.

Creating a standards task force was intended as a central strategy in David Blunkett's crusade to raise standards in schools. Its formal remit is to unite the education service in the drive to raise standards and promote good practice.

There was also the (possibly slightly forlorn) hope that it could unite warring academics and involve practitioners.

The decision to give leading roles to Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, and Professor Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer in Birmingham, was variously interpreted as either symbolic of a new order or as a cynical acceptance that the chief inspector would not otherwise participate. The two have clashed most recently over the inspection report on Birmingham.

There was excitement on the first evening at Windsor, generated by the sight of Mr Woodhead and Mr Brighouse in serious discussion. The topic appeared to be the process by which the controversial report was drafted.

In the event, the task force has yet to establish whether it is an independent think-tank that criticises ministers or whether its job is to act as an ambassador for the Goverment's measures to raise standards. Over the past few months, a number of sub-groups have been working on teacher morale (there is talk of an Oscars ceremony for outstanding teachers); identifying what works in schools and how schools can be effective within their communities.

At Windsor, there was debate with ministers on policy proposals likely to emerge before the summer. The task force allows ministers to present initiatives to a cross-section of the education establishment.

The views of heads can be gauged alongside those of academics such as Cambridge University's Professor David Hargreaves.

While there is a programme of work for the task force, it is hard to imagine that the participants are likely to agree on the group's main purpose.

It certainly provides ministers with a useful forum for testing out projects in the pipeline, but there is likely to be less enthusiasm in Government for a group with a more independent role.

The task force does appear to have a problem in developing a distinctive role. According to Ted Wragg, the education professor and TEScolumnist, without a place on the group, there had been a healthy tradition of ministers taking advice from education professionals. "The tradition ended with Kenneth Baker," he says, "but prior to that there was an informal group of academics and chief education officers. The task force needs a distinctive role, but it has to be careful that it does not encroach on policy-making."

The revelation for ministers is likely to have been the scale of the disagreement among academics about the most effective means to to raise standards.

The test of their commitment to the task force will be its response should one of its members publicly criticise Government policy.

WHO'S WHO ON THE TASK FORCE

David Blunkett, Education Secretary, (chair)

Stephen Byers, standards minister, (deputy chair)

Tim Brighouse, chief education officer, Birmingham,(vice chair)

Chris Woodhead, vice chair

Michael Barber, head of standards and effectiveness unit, DFEE (secretary)

Lord Puttnam, film director

John Baker, National Power

Anthea Millett, chief executive, Teacher Training Agency

Nick Tate, chief executive, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

William Atkinson, Phoenix high school, London

Carole Evans, Priory school, Slough

Sue Pearson, Lache infants, Chester

Janet Warwick, Rhyn Park school,Oswestry

David Winkley, Grove primary, Birmingham

Carol Adams, CEO, Shropshire

David Bell, CEO Newcastle

Chrissie Garret, Banbury school, Oxfordshire

David Hargreaves, Cambridge University

Stephen Heppell, Anglia Polytechnic University

Jill Keiran, Whiteheath infants, Middlesex

Simon Lee, Liverpool Hope University College

Janet Major, Bungay high school, Suffolk

John McBeath, Strathclyde University

Heidi Safia Mirza, South Bank University

Peter Owen, DFEE

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