Former education secretary Estelle Morris told Brian Walden on Sunday of her frustration with Tony Blair's advisers micromanaging education policy in her department.
Blair's Downing Street policy directorate pays more attention to individual departmental policy than policy units under previous prime ministers.
Advisers can promote and scrutinise often controversial education policies.
Such tensions are not new. Gillian Shephard, the last Tory education secretary, reluctantly accepted the "grammar school in every town" pushed by John Major's policy wonks. Successive prime ministers have expected the Number 10 policy unit to think more radically than departments.
These pressures are greater now because Blair has pinned his success on public service reform. His intervention was crucial in winning extra cash for schools from a reluctant Chancellor in recent spending reviews, and Downing Street advisers were central to that process. However, tensions arise where interests diverge. Ms Morris clearly disliked being pushed towards top-up fees. Downing Street also tends to want more choice and financial independence for schools than the department believes is desirable Some ministers find it easier than others to resist these pressures. But to succeed, they must recognise that "unelected advisers" answer to Blair. If they don't like their proposals, they must take their concerns to the top.
Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1997-2001