Merger dominates CEOs' agenda

14th July 1995 at 01:00
The theme "Working together for effective education" could have been written with the merger of the departments of education and employment in mind.

But while Tony Webster, director of education in Tameside, may well be president of the Society of Education Officers, he cannot have been privy to last week's changes when drawing up the agenda for its summer conference.

For civil servants within what was the Department for Education were caught off-guard by Gillian Shephard's e-mail message last Wednesday. And many are now feeling decidedly uneasy, fearing for their own career prospects.

As the brass nameplate for the new super department was being mounted outside Sanctuary Buildings last week, chief education officers converged on Manchester for their three-day conference.

The talk was dominated by merger - the name of the new department, how it would operate, the look of its new logo. Who would head it, how would the two departments combine, were jobs to be created or lost?

While the acronym DFEE was swiftly chosen for Mrs Shephard's new empire, local government had its own ideas, most of which centred around DFEAT - Department For Education And Training. (Similar thoughts emerged among the grant-maintained sector).

Chris Waterman, from the Association of London Government, was among the first to come forward with an idea for its new logo: crossed sticks of chalk over a UB40 card. The design team at the now defunct DFE had by Friday not come up with an offering.

David Blunkett, one of the five conference speakers, was in upbeat mood: "Cheryl Gillan (the new junior minister) - a very strange person to be appointed to anything," he quipped.

Reaction to Labour's policy paper Diversity and Excellence was not surprisingly muted.

Among the most supportive was Philip Hunter, chief education officer at Staffordshire: "Partnership between central and local government can produce much more than the war that we have had over the last six or seven years".

Others were less enthusiastic, offering little more than a cautious welcome before pointing out it was a long way between a policy paper, manifesto and an Act of Parliament. And a handful were downright disappointed: "If Labour is really interested in equity of funding, why set up three different sorts of schools."

The Office for Standards in Education came in for a hammering from both Mr Blunkett and Ted Wragg, director of education at Exeter University - Professor Wragg calling for it to be abolished and Mr Blunkett, revised.

Six months ago, when Tony and Cherie Blair were deciding on the London Oratory grant-maintained school for their son Euan, LEAs feared for their future under a Labour government.

Diversity and Excellence if nothing else has made them feel a little more comfortable. And Mr Blunkett urged them: "Sing about things you are doing well. Instead of being defensive, you have got to start thinking positively.

"Local authorities in the past colluded with schools that were useless and didn't take any action against heads who couldn't do the job. We are all taking the blame for it. But by hell we have got to get it right. We have got to get it right in the Department and right in the local authority.

"If we don't, then quangos, sidelining and other avenues will be used. "

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