Long march to the culture revolution;Briefing;Inside: the DFEE;News amp; opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
TONY BLAIR'S attack on the teaching profession is just the latest stage of his battle against the "forces of conservatism". One of Labour's greatest fears when they took office in 1997 was that their reforms would be blocked by vested interests in the civil service.

They wasted no time in tackling that concern. In his first statement as Education Secretary, David Blunkett stressed the need for "key changes in the culture, ethos and operation" of the Department for Education and Employment. Days later, the Standards and Effectiveness Unit - headed by Michael Barber, an outsider - was set up to drive up school standards.

But, despite the traditional fears of left-leaning politicians about obstructive civil servants, the biggest initial problem turned out to be incompetence. Accustomed to the slick Millbank machine, Labour ministers were genuinely shocked by the lack of expertise in their private and press offices.

The resultant clearout, which was not just confined to the DFEE, sparked media stories of control-freakery and attempted politicisation of the civil service.

Certainly Labour ministers have been anxious to keep a close eye on officials' work. David Blunkett has an unprecedented four political advisers working within the department.

One of the biggest changes under Labour has been the increased media focus. All DFEE policy initiatives are now screened by Blunkett's advisers for their likely public impact.

The changes are not all bad news for civil servants. Because of David Blunkett's close working relationship with his advisers, officials who are unable to get time with ministers can instead get advice or approval for ideas from them.

But it is a moot point whether the reforms amount to a fundamental culture change. Despite ministers' insistence on being called by their first names, the DFEE remains hierarchical and bureaucratic. It is not uncommon for as many as seven or eight officials from different areas of the department to attend the same meeting with an outside agency.

And in the push to modernise the department there are fears that the baby may have been thrown out with the bath water. Critics argue that, in the rush, proper scrutiny of policy has been abandoned.

Such criticism, however, shows no sign of slowing down the pace of change. Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, is working on whole-scale reform of the civil service. And, in an irony which will not be lost on teachers, Michael Bichard, the DFEE's permanent secretary, is drawing up plans to link officials' pay to their performance.

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