11th July 1997 at 01:00
These are tumultuous times in the Socialist Educational Association. Graham Lane, its general secretary for the past 17 years, has resigned as of the end of August. And he's seriously considering whether to remain a member at all.

Tantalisingly, he is keeping his cards close to his chest - for the time being. But it is no secret that Mr Lane - an SEA stalwart man and boy - had rather hoped that Euro-MP Robert Evans would manage to oust the elderly Max Morris as chairman last month. He didn't, thanks to tremendous support in his home borough.

"It's caused shock waves," says Mr Lane, who is also supremo of the Local Government Association's education committee.

"It has been a very difficult decision, but it was nothing to do with pressure of work. It's something I've been thinking of for the past three years, not the past two months." Friends of the affable Mr Lane may also be pleased to know that personal problems do not lie behind his decision, either. "My wife is looking forward to me spending more time with her," he says, muttering something about helping out with the cleaning.

Hints of the reasons for his departure, however, emerge as he speaks. The SEA, says Mr Lane, must face up to Labour finally being in power. Should it follow the Conservative Education Association in becoming a "critical friend" of the Government ("and therefore ineffective" says Mr Lane) or become the education wing of the Labour party.

It also needs to become a damn sight younger. "When I become the general secretary I was 36. Stephen Byers was on the national executive at 26. If we had anyone of 36 now they would be far and away the youngest member. Do you realise, we couldn't even send anyone to Young Labour?" mourns Mr Lane.

Still, there are positive points. "I'm not going to miss driving all round the country at my own expense," he snorts.

Mr Lane has another reason to be cheerful: Labour's plans to ensure 16-year-olds will no longer be able to leave school at Easter without the inconvenience of taking GCSEs. As this week's White Paper put it, quaintly: "The previous Government committed itself to changing this as long ago as 1991. After full consultation the appropriate legislation was enacted with all-party support. Despite this, it has never been implemented."

Graham Lane, a local government fixer throughout that time, has an interesting explanation. "I wrote to John Patten, the then education secretary. He said the provision was not going to be enacted because of the cost of the extra child benefit. So it was entirely down to the Treasury." He is cock-a-hoop that his letters may have influenced the policy of the new Government.

Carborundum gets out the calculator (sorry - we mean, of course, practices some swift mental arithmetic).The cost of an extra two months' child benefit for up to 17,000 school-leavers works out at a princely Pounds 1,360,000. Good grief.

White Papers ain't what they used to be. For a start, the current number - the snappily typographed Excellence in Schools - isn't really a White Paper at all. Once upon a time, Whites were the blueprint for legislation - this isn't.

Then there is presentation. Excellence in Schools got the full Mandelsonian treatment. The top two floors of Westminster's snazzy QEII Conference Centre were hired, complete with live video link to Mr Blunkett's statement in the Commons. Tea and posh biscuits consumed, the assorted hacks and DFEE minions were herded to the conference chamber where Michael Bichard, the DFEE's permanent secretary, was master of ceremonies. Then Excellence In Schools: The Video was shown, complete with stirring music underpinning a stirring conference speech by Mr Blunkett, itself underpinning a stirring film of children learning.

Anything to do with film director David Puttnam's new position on the Government's standards task force? "Good heavens, no - we couldn't afford him," beamed an official.

Still, giving the thing a good send-off were no fewer than three Government ministers - David Blunkett (flushed and elated), Stephen Byers (very cheerful) and Estelle Morris (grim) - plus special adviser Michael Barber (very nervous) and two real civil servants, Mr Bichard and press officer Jonathan Haslam (disinterested both). All, incidentally, in charcoal grey suits, except Ms Morris who was sporting a lighter version.

And then there is the 86-page document itself. White paper there is - lurking underneath lurid blocks of Day-Glo pink and green. Key points in each chapter are picked out in their own fetching colour scheme. More of a Spice Girls paper than a White Paper. And the greens and pinks are resolutely refusing to stay on-message, as New Labour jargon would have it, and are appearing in subtly different shades according to the printing method. Still, if that's all they've got to worry about . . .

Nursery vouchers have been blamed for all sorts of things, from shoving hundreds of four-year-olds into reception classes for which they were not ready to forcing playgroups to close. The best whinge yet came last week from the organisers of Woodstock Carnival parade in Oxfordshire: the vouchers, they said, deprived them of the presence of around 200 children.

Eh? Terry Summers, the organising committee chairman, explained: "Last year we had 10 playgroups joining the parade with hundreds of children. This year the voucher scheme has hit playgroups . . . we had six playgroups drop out. "

He added plaintively: "It's a great pity because children really seem to enjoy taking part in this event." Carborundum hopes John Major is hanging his head in shame.


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