Don't mention the fish

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Josephine Gardiner spotlights those with the school standards brief

Formerly opposition spokesman on employment and training, now minister for school standards - a brief which covers just about everything pertaining to schools.

Now 44, Steve Byers is a former senior lecturer in law (Newcastle Poly) with a a background in local government (North Tyneside Council). After a number of abortive attempts to become an MP, he was eventually selected for the safe Labour seat of Wallsend (now North Tyneside) and entered the Commons in 1992, since when he has rapidly secured a reputation as a high-flyer, joining the whips' office in 1994 and becoming education and employment spokesman in 1995. Able, ambitious, well dressed, rational rather than passionate in debate, he would appear to be the archetypal Blairite, friend of Peter Mandelson and part of the "North-East mafia".

But when you look at the education issues that have moved Mr Byers to speak out, a more traditional Labour man emerges. As education chairman for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities before he became an MP, he launched the first of many attacks on opting out, and in his maiden speech he warned against a return to selection.

He has argued that the Assisted Places Scheme tends to benefit only middle-class parents and demanded an inquiry into poor-quality independents that rely on the scheme. He sympathised with teachers forced to endure "permanent revolution" under the Tories, argued against league tables, asked questions about the funding of city technology colleges, complained about the cost of Tory propaganda on opting out, and deplored the academic-vocational divide and the underfunding of primary education.

His greatest claim to wider fame came via the Blackpool Fish Supper Affair. During the last Labour party conference he told a group of journalists at a Blackpool seafood restaurant that Labour was planning to sever links with the unions. The story was allegedly planted in order to reassure middle England about new Labour's modernity, but Byers was embarrassingly unmasked as the source and the TUC was furious.

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