Independent chairman or Blair's poodle?

17th December 1999 at 00:00
BARRY SHEERMAN is best known as the MP who last year launched the Millennium Destruction Challenge, calling for Buckingham Palace and other design "monstrosities" to be razed to the ground to make way for the works of bright young architects.

Does he have any similarly radical ideas for education? The question is pertinent because Mr Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, is the new chairman of the education select committee.

But anyone looking for the same degree of independence he displayed on architectural matters may be disappointed.

Mr Sheerman, a veteran of 20 years in the Commons, has been described as "more Blairite than Blair" on education. Harsher observers have described him as a new Labour "poodle", forever asking sycophantic questions in the Commons. With both his predecessors rewarded with ministerial posts he will have to work hard to assert his independence.

His background gives him every reason to sing in harmony with the leadership on social exclusion. He left Hampton grammar, Middlesex, at 16, having felt "alienated" as a working-class boy in a "very posh environment".

Hence his allegiance to the Government's doctrine of raising standards for pupils of all backgrounds. Mr Sheerman, who returned to his studies at 19 and eventually became a politics lecturer at University College, Swansea, also talks about building partnerships between all the "stakeholders" in education, from teachers and parents to business.

All very Blairite. But what happens if the Government gets things wrong? Mr Sheerman talks tough about the role of the select committee as a check on the executive, claiming: "Those who know me well know that I will be a most robust chairman, and will not mince my words."

Thus far, however, he has no major disagreements with ministers. This week, his first committee report as chairman suggested that new Government rules on school meals were not sufficiently scientific.

He is a governor at the London School of Economics and he admits that his main expertise is in higher education. However, he can claim first-hand experience of state schools as they educated his four children.

His links with the business world include chairing the Networking for Industry group. An opposition education spokesman for five years in the 1980s, he helped draft education policy for Labour's 1987 manifesto.

He replaces Malcolm Wicks, the new lifelong learning minister.

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