Westminster watchdog won't bite but the pups might nip

27th July 2001 at 01:00
THE most dreaded words one can hear at Westminster are Barry Sheerman saying: "I shall be brief."

The chairman of the education select committee has gained a reputation as a rambling speaker, loyal to the Government despite protestations of independence.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris is unlikely to be troubled by his re-appointment last week. But she could find more vocal critics of Government policy elsewhere on the 11-member body - and not just from opposition parties.

Observers give Mr Sheerman plaudits for holding the Office for Standards in Education to account - twice-yearly appearances by the chief inspector of schools before the committee are to continue.

But while controversy has surrounded the introduction of performance pay, teacher workload and AS-levels, the committee has not been a focal point for dissent - although it did warn of staff shortages when ministers were still trying to play down the issue.

Its major recent inquiries have largely avoided schools to centre on pre-school and higher education - Mr Sheerman's main interest.

Although he sees himself as something of an outsider, Mr Sheerman's loyalty was rewarded last month with the honour of responding to the Queen's Speech. His 15-minute address - with references to "cheap champagne" served at Gordon Brown's wedding, which are said to have put paid to his chances of promotion - had MPs and journalists squirming.

(His fellow responder, the young David Lammy, gave a sparkling, but not obsequious, speech and is now Ms Morris's private parliamentary secretary.) Mr Sheerman also invited criticism at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in May when he appeared to blame staff shortages on the fact that women now have more career choices, simultaneously belittling both women and teachers.

More trouble could come from new committee members such as David Chaytor, Labour MP for Bury North.

An opponent of specialist schools, he last week helped to launch a paper defending comprehensives, and is in contact with other "like-minded" backbenchers.

On that he would be backed by Paul Holmes, the sole Liberal Democrat and a comprehensive teacher for 22 years until taking Tony Benn's Chesterfield seat on June 7. He will bring realism to the committee.

The Conservatives, too, bring some weight and expertise to their line-up, with the former chief executive of the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation and new Isle of Wight MP, Andrew Turner.

He is a long-standing Tory education adviser - although coy about whether he helped develop their disastrous Free Schools policy - and staunch advocate of privatisation. He was appointed by US firm Edison to bid (unsuccessfully) for the contract to take over the then Kings' Manor school in Guildford.

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