Mr Byers' day out

21st November 1997 at 00:00
The school standards minister departed last week on a whirlwind tour of Devon. Frances Rafferty kept up with him

It's 8.45am and the train is pulling out of London's Paddington Station. The education minister sits behind his piles of newspapers and briefing notes.

Stephen Byers flicks through the pages, dominated by the Formula One imbroglio in which his Government is entangled. For him, and his press officer, however, the fear is of discovering any unwelcome education stories.

By the time he is speeding past Reading, this fear is allayed. The morning press does not contain any unexploded education bombs.

Meanwhile in Hamberton, near Tiverton, staff and governors at the Victorian village primary are waiting nervously. Their school is first on the list of the minister's whirlwind tour of Devon, organised as a flag-waving trip on the back of a political meeting due to be attended by Mr Byers in the evening.

The tiny 50-pupil school had reason for apprehension. Earlier this year it was named by the Office for Standards in Education as failing. Were they due for a dressing down from the minister?

By 11am Mr Byers and a posse from Devon County Council had arrived. Carol Onley-Gregson, chair of governors, is anxious to show everything in the best possible light - while accentuating some of the problems. It is also an opportunity for her to introduce Steven Duncan, who is to take over as head.

"He is thirty and a half," she explained when his obvious youth was mentioned.

Later, Mr Duncan admitted the visit had gone well. "Mr Byers was fairly positive and we didn't feel as if we were being grilled. He listened to what we had to say and asked me what my priorities are."

It was a chance for the staff - and the county hall mob, including Stephen Jenkins, the chief education officer, and Saxon Spence, leader of the Labour group - to press the case of a rural authority. The recent education White Paper, they felt, had all the hallmarks of a London-penned document and the problems of rural communities with small primary schools and huge distances between towns and villages have not been considered.

As he was whisked through a bewildering range of lessons and facilities Mr Byers managed to remember not only which school he was in, but also the particular issues and points of interest from his briefing notes.

Next stop on the tight itinerary (11.50am and still running to time) was Tiverton high, recent recipient of Pounds 40,000 from the Government's New Deal for Schools. The money is being used to build information technology facilities.

The minister was shown to the careers and IT rooms and on to Year 11 science. It was the photographer who decided a lesson on the classification of animals - aided by bottled snakes and bats - was a better photo opportunity than the theory of friction in the next room.

The head winced as Mr Byers made a beeline for a boy with a dreadlock haircut. The minister's knee joints were bearing up well as he squatted alongside pupils and chatted about what they were doing or listened to their reading.

Despite the brevity of the visit, Mr Byers impressed the staff. "He was good at talking to the children and managed an instant rapport," said Roger Lambert, the head. "I hope he went back with an understanding of the problems Devon has, and the difficulties we face after local government reorganisation."

Half an hour had been allowed for lunch and it wasn't long after when Mr Byers was being driven along the Exe valley in the chief education officer's wife's silver Peugeot Cabriolet on the way to Exeter.

This was hardly a tourist-authority inspired trek of clotted cream country. Whipton campus, a conglomerate of family centre, first and middle schools, lies in the shadow of an unlovely tower block. The children live in the surrounding council estates and more than a third have free school meals. But for Labour it was a community-based education success story.

The campus has a nursery, provides child care in his holidays and after school, and runs courses for parents. Mr Byers was introduced to the giggling, corduroy clad vicar, the mums and the teachers while one toddler munched on the sand pit. He then went on a tour, joined by the bright young local MP, Ben Bradshaw.

"Toby said there were peas walking along the corridor," squealed one young pupil, creasing in double in mirth. "But he should have said VIPs...Very Important People," she added showing how unperturbed they all were by the Invasion of the Suits. When asked to point out the Most Important Person, she had no difficulty.

Next on the list - and the time starting to slip - was Summerway middle school.

Paul Jones, the head, had taken over a year ago when it was known in the city as the "school without a uniform" and after it had received a bad inspection report.

"I said that if a school is to be turned around then high quality training for teachers and support from the local authority...and extra funding is necessary," he said.

But it was Emily Mellor who caught the minister's eye. At 4pm on Friday she and her netball team were training in the playground. With the officials looking at their watches, Mr Byers received an impromptu netball lesson.

By the time the silver car arrived at Beacon Heath first school, the classrooms were dark, but the teapot still warm as Joan Cudmore, the head welcomed him to the last school on the list.

"You can never get a totally realistic picture, but the day has given me a useful snapshot of Devon schools," said Mr Byers.

It also proved, he said, the Government was right to include rural areas in education action zones.

By 4.30pm Mr Byers, showing no signs of flagging, was presenting an award to the Earth Resources Centre at Exeter University. A day's job done. . . an evening with Devonshire school governors to look forward to.

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