Socialists join the ranks of critical friends

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Now that the Socialist Educational Association has Government's ear, it is eager to widen its base, reports Nicolas Barnard.

These are heady times for the Socialist Educational Association. Challenging ones too.

With a new government in power, the small but influential Labour-party-affiliated organisation can list every minister at the Department for Education and Employment as a member. Indeed, one member in 18 is an MP and most Labour local education authority education chairs are card-carriers along with key members of the Local Government Association. The SEA general secretary is LGA education chairman Graham Lane.

But while that puts the organisation in a strong position to influence the shape of education in Britain, there were fears at last week's annual general meeting in Bristol that it is in danger of becoming moribund.

While Labour party membership has more than doubled over the past few years, with teachers, lecturers and others working in education making up a quarter of its 400,000 members, SEA membership is static at around 1,400.

While the SEA is not a teachers' pressure group, as Mr Lane admits, it is keen to see more members with classroom experience among the school governors, education committee councillors and MPs. It is planning an urgent root-and-branch review to revitalise membership and increase participation. There is concern that only a highly vocal inner circle is involved in debate.

A national executive committee member, the Euro MP Robert Evans, told the AGM: "We should be broader and we should be able to have more influence," adding: "This isn't a criticism; more a cry for help, a call for action."

The association hopes to play a role in widening debate over Labour's forthcoming education White Paper. But some delegates believed the SEA should accept its role as a pressure group rather than a mass-membership organisation. A move to change its name to the Labour Education Society was defeated.

The SEA - once called the Association of Labour Teachers - has had much influence on Labour thinking in the past. It claims credit for persuading the party to introduce comprehensive education.

It has told the new Government, in the phrase of the day, that it is preparing to be a "critical friend". And the conference sent a signal that it would be watching for any signs of backsliding from the new incumbents at Sanctuary Buildings.

Members passed a string of resolutions restating key policies in a gentle reminder to ministers of Labour's commitment to, among other things, comprehensive education, nursery education for all three-year-olds sooner rather than later, and the speedy abolition of grant-maintained status.

There was the inevitable call for more cash for education, and disquiet that the "name-and-shame" culture was continuing.

But it is also making a clear attempt to move the further education debate along as Labour spends its initial energies reforming primary education (see right).

It will have a fine line to tread. Steve Byers, SEA vice-president and school standards minister, told the conference the association had a vital role to play if it contributed "constructively", keeping criticisms for private meetings with ministers.

But he repeated a warning that it could end up like the Conservative Education Association - constantly criticising the last government from the sidelines and unable to influence policy as a consequence. "The SEA isn't going to be a fan club of the new Government," he said. "What it will be is the education wing of the Labour party, reminding us of policy and ensuring in a constructive way that we are aware of the views of members."

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