Hidden engine gears up;Briefing;Analysis

30th April 1999 at 01:00
The standards task force set up by New Labour is two years old. Jon Slater assesses its achievements and its potential

Next week Tony Blair's government will celebrate its second birthday. For people with an interest, or involvement in education, it's been a rollercoaster ride. Almost the first thing the incoming Education Secretary David Blunkett did was set set up a new group, intended to make flesh New Labour's promise to put standards at the heart of its educational agenda. Next month that group, the standards task force, will also be two years' old.

What does the standards task force do? Is it just a talking shop or is it the hidden engine of ideas driving Government policy? Teachers and voters have had few clues.

Since its very public launch in May 1997, the group has not published a single document. And when it did hit the headlines, it was nothing to do with policy. The resignation of its joint vice-chair Tim Brighouse last month did little to solve the mystery.

The 24-strong group - which is not part of the Department for Education and Employment - includes seven headteachers and deputies and one serving teacher as well as civil servants, businessmen and academics from all sides of the education debate.

Cynics suggest that they have become deadlocked by arguments over policy and personality. They argue that with so many views, rivalries and egos, coherent policy has no chance of emerging.

The animosity between Professor Brighouse and his fellow vice-chair Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, is certainly no secret. They clashed repeatedly over the need to support teachers, and again when the Office for Standards in Education inspected Birmingham education authority, which is led by Professor Brighouse.

David Hargreaves, the new vice-chair, is likely to find it easier to work with Mr Woodhead, assuming the latter survives his current problems. But the pair have had recent run-ins over the value of research in the classroom.

Professor Hargreaves is aware of the need to forge his own "third way" if the group is to prosper. "My approach will be distinctly Hargreaves, neither Brighouse nor Woodhead," he said.

Although personality clashes are an easy answer to the apparent lack of activity, they do not tell the whole story. Ministers would rather have heated private debates than see disputes splashed across the front pages of the press. And although the task force has made little public impact, it has been influential behind the scenes. Despite an inevitably hectic schedule, David Blunkett has so far managed to attend every meeting.

Initially the group was little more than a sounding board for ministers, giving them access to professional advice outside unions and pressure groups. It enables practical "nuts and bolts" policy problems to be ironed out away from the glare of publicity.

Members meet about four times a year - more often if needed - and the group is chaired by the Secretary of State. Much of the organisation is done by Michael Barber, head of the DFEE's standards and effectiveness unit.

But the close link with the DFEE does not necessarily mean ministers are told what they want to hear. According to Professor Brighouse, the group is not afraid to speak its mind.

"It is fairly unconstrained in what it says and ministers have encouraged that," he said.

And after finding their feet, members have become more involved in creating policy. Currently the task force's work is concentrated in four areas: identifying and spreading good practice; valuing and reviving the teaching profession; responding to the Green Paper; and involving the community and parents in schools.

Out of the work of these groups have come "Oscars" for teachers, beacon schools and significant contributions to education action zones and the national literacy and numeracy strategies.

A new vice-chair is likely to bring new priorities. David Hargreaves has been a member of the task force since it was set up; he is an expert on professional development and is currently focusing on the shape of schooling in the next century. Part of his vision was outlined in a pamphlet for Demos, the Blairite think-tank, in 1997.

Controversially, he argued that the upper and middle classes would increasingly turn to private and home education for their children leaving a state network of "custodial schools" for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

He is likely to continue the emphasis on community involvement but he also wants to look at the impact of new technology in the classroom. He will be keen for the task force to look to the future.

"We are at an interesting period after two years of the present government," he said. Although he acknowledges that incoming ministers needed to make their mark quickly, he believes that the quick-fixes now need to be replaced by longer-term planning.

This new approach could see the task force develop into a kind of in-house think-tank for the DFEE - planning education changes well into the next millennium. Already the group is looking at the information schools provide for parents, and any government announcements in this area are likely to carry thetask-force stamp.

However, although members are free to suggest issues to look at, any change in the areas of inquiry would have to be negotiated with ministers,who are understandably keen to keep the group's work in tune with the Government's agenda.

In the end, its success or otherwise will be down to its ideas. After a slow start, and jockeying for position among some of its key players, there are signs it is beginning to make a real impact on the policy process.

But as recent events show, keeping both progressives and traditionalists on board will not be easy. It is a balancing act ministers are attempting not just on the standards task force but across the country.

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