The powers behind Blunkett's throne

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Exactly how you become one of the nation's new education policy-makers is unclear, despite Labour's pledges on open government.

Proposals for a freedom of information Act designed to ensure people's right to official information do not appear to extend to the task forces charged with shaping the future of education.

Paradoxically, the secrecy may be justified on the grounds that it enables groups to have wide-ranging discussions without fear of upsetting anyone or attracting critical headlines. Or perhaps it is now second nature to the tightly-regimented New Labour party.

The Department for Education and Employment seems particularly sensitive about discussing the groups that have been springing up since May 1. Press releases outline their remits and list names of those appointed, but little is known about how and why people are chosen.

Why, for example, were particular headteachers chosen to sit on the standards task force? "They were people Michael [Barber] and David [Blunkett] knew," said a DFEE spokesman. "Michael Barber knows the personalities we thought would be keen."

So does the future of Britain's education service rest with groups of "Michael's friends" and friends of his friends or is this new style a genuine attempt to draw together people from different groups?

It is certainly one way of silencing critics by drawing them in to an inner sanctum - many task force insiders glow with pride at their privileged position. And it opens up new channels of expertise, by-passing think-tanks and consultants who would expect to be paid for providing similar services.

Many task force members are unsure why they were appointed - "I don't know why I was appointed other than I have a big mouth and I am not easily convinced," said one. Another added: "I don't know how you are chosen."

Among the most well-known of the headteachers must be Sue Pearson from Lache County infants in Chester. She was invited on to the standards task force personally by Education Secretary David Blunkett after she told a National Association of Head Teachers conference about how her school improved standards.

Other task force members range from the Labour glitterati - novelist Ken Follett and Lord Puttnam - to trade unionists and business people.

The National Advisory Group on Continuing Education is slightly different from the other task forces, having a specific remit to produce a practical programme for the lifelong learning White Paper, due later this year.

Its membership is dominated by figures from traditional adult education - the colleges which gave a route back into education for leading Labour figures like John Prescott.

Further education, much to the annoyance of college principals, is poorly represented. There is also concern about the general lack of head and teacher representation.

Some from schools presume they were chosen because of good reports from the Office for Standards in Education - certainly Ms Pearson wrote to Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, outling her success.

Local authorities, teacher trade unions and governors - the people who will have to turn the policies into action - would expect to be consulted. Grant-maintained schools, whose future looks dicey under the new Government, have also been involved.

Civil servants, who would normally have expected it to be their job to advise the Government on policy, act as the secretariat to the task forces and it remains to be seen how much they listen to them before reporting, either formally or informally, to ministers.

"The proof will be in the pudding when we see what is acted on," said one task force member. "The power will definitely be in the civil servant's pen."

Meetings are said to be amicable and the overwhelmin g impression gleaned from members of task forces aside from concerns about secrecy is that they are a good thing. "We don't want to damage this," said one member in a sentiment echoed by a spokeswoman from the DFEE who said: "I hope you aren't going to show them in a bad light."

But it is clear that in some groups tensions are building beneath the surface. A suggestion that one task force needed to go abroad to further research its area prompted outrage from one member who said: "I am not waltzing around Hungary. "

A member of another group said "nothing explosive has happened - yet" while another remarked: "The dirty work has yet to come - if there is to be any."

All are waiting to see what spin civil servants might put on reports to ministers, but believed that it was better to be on the inside.

One was more cynical: "I'm sure that the civil servants will subvert it all. Michael [Barber] is the poacher turned gamekeeper. "

Another said meetings were "incredibly positive, vital and enthusiastic" and everyone is treated as equals. "People are excited. There is a genuine openness about ideas and people are encouraged to come up with their own.

"We are there in our own right and not as representatives of any organisation. We are not expected to follow any party line, or to agree with everything that is being said. If I disagreed with something I would certainly say so."

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