In danger of losing valuable voice

8th September 2000 at 01:00
SINCE the election, those looking for a political window on future government thinking or for robust criticisms of current practice have kept a close eye on the House of Commons Education and Employment Select Committee.

Chaired first by Margaret Hodge, then by Malcolm Wicks, the committee built a strong reputation as an independent political voice in education. Highlights included shaming the Government over the teacher-recruitment crisis and a detailed critique of the Office for Standards in Education.

However, as we enter what will probably be the final political year before the next election, the committee is in danger of losing its way. Both Ms Hodge and Mr Wicks have gone on to become education ministers while the new chair, Barry Sheerman, is struggling to make his mark.

The most recent report on private-sector involvement in education failed to make a political impact and the higher education inquiry currently underway shows little signs of being more focused.

What was originally conceived as a short inquiry to look into accusations of university elitism has ballooned to include individual members' hobby-horses. This "quick" investigation is now unlikely to be completed much before Christmas.

After a public row with Nick St Aubyn, aConservative member of the committee, during evidence to the inquiry on higher education, Sheerman narrowly avoided facing a vote of no confidence.

St Aubyn withdrew the threat of a vote after the Liberal

Democrat members told him they would back Sheerman

but several members - Labour MPs among them - are

known to be unhappy with his performance.

They are worried that the profile of the committee is declining and that Sheerman is failing both to listen to the views of other members of the committee and to give its work a clear sense of direction.

Not all the committee's

problems are Mr Sheerman's fault. It has lost several of its more able members such as Don Foster, ex-Liberal Democrat

education spokesperson, Theresa May who has moved to the

opposition front bench and

Caroline Flint, promoted to a

junior government job.

But the role of the chair is

crucial. He or she has the key role in keeping members of the different parties happy and in shaping both the scope of

inquiries and the content of reports.

There is a feeling that unless Mr Sheerman gets a grip soon, the committee will lose the valuable political capital it has established and a weighty voice in education will be lost.

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