Shielded from the glare of a media obsessed by spin doctors, New Labour thinkers are drawing up battle plans for the next election. Jon Slater reports
The next election is three years away, but work has already begun on the policies which will dominate Labour's manifesto. And with the Tories looking down and out, these ideas could shape education for years to come.
While the media seems obsessed by "Tony's cronies", little attention is paid to how policies are formed. As ministers busy themselves with day-to-day government, the early manifesto work is being done outside Whitehall.
In 1974, Margaret Thatcher set up the Centre for Policy Studies to help persuade her party to support free-market economics. Tony Blair's Government has also trawled beyond the party's traditional policy-makers (such as academics and trade unions) to think-tanks to find the ideas to create a modernising agenda.
One of the closest to Labour is the Institute of Public Policy Research.
Mike Jacobs, general secretary of the Fabian Society, one of its cerebral rivals, acknowledged: "In opposition the IPPR acted, in effect, as a civil service for Labour."
And the links are especially strong in education. Baroness Blackstone was the chair of trustees from its launch until she became an education minister in 1997. David Milliband was head of education at the IPPR before moving to Tony Blair's office, and the current post-holder, Nick Pearce, advised David Blunkett on lifelong learning before the election.
The IPPR was the first left-leaning body to make the case for university tuition fees. it promoted individual learning accounts before they became fashionable and it was heavily involved in creating the blueprint for the University for Industry.
Given this track record it would be no surprise if the institute's current work has a big impact. They are just starting a report on the financing of post-16 education which will cover individual learning accounts, the impact of the tax and benefit system on education and the role of the voluntary sector. It is expected to be published in 2000 just as work on the manifesto will start in earnest.
Another planned project will look at how parents can become more involved in schools. Nick Pearce describes this as "the next plank" of Labour's schools agenda. The idea of family learning is one which ministers are keen on but "government policy is relatively underdeveloped. We want to come up with useful options for the Government and other people for the next stage of reform," he said.
But in the last couple of years the IPPR's position has been challenged by a new kid on the block. Demos shot to prominence when it published a pamphlet on re-branding Britain which fuelled the hype surrounding Cool Britannia. But it has also been influential in education. Its publications have influenced ministers' thinking on education action zones, the way children learn and community learning.
Tom Bentley, who will become its director next month, is currently finishing an eight-month secondment as adviser to David Blunkett. His return will coincide with the start of a major project looking at what education might be like in 15 years.
The report will cover the structure of qualifications, including A-levels, the possibility of introducing "thinking skills" into the curriculum and will try to predict the changing patterns of demand for learning. It will also look at the role and potential of information technology and how it changes the teacher's job, said Mr Bentley.
While Demos takes a broad-brush approach, the New Policy Institute aims to provide the Government with the tools to ease nuts-and-bolts policy problems.
It is currently researching the effectiveness of "breakfast clubs" for school pupils, evaluating an Islington local authority and voluntary sector partnership which includes education and researching the geographic concentration of low-income families.
The market in ideas has become very competitive with each institution trying to gain the Government's ear. A good example was the rush to influence policy on disaffected children - one of the few areas in education where little policy was outlined in opposition. The New Policy Institute, the IPPR and even the House of Commons Select Committee all rushed through work in an attempt to influence ministers.
Competition has been exacerbated by each institution's need to win funding from business, charities or patrons. Cash is often given on a project-by project basis and researchers have to find outside funding for their own salaries.
This problem has less impact on the Fabian Society which attracts funds from its 9,000 members. Labour's "in house" think tank has undergone a revival in recent years and played a significant role in the birth of new Labour. Both the rewriting of Clause Four and one member one vote were advocated by the Fabians. And Southern Discomfort, its report on southern voters' attitudes to Labour contributed to the ditching of many party shibboleths.
It will be interesting to see if its Time for Learning, Time for Jobs which will be published at the end of the month will have a similar impact. The report, will propose that employees should be given time off work to learn.
Unemployed people would then be taken on and trained to make up the lost hours. The costs would be shared by the state, employers and the employees themselves.
Mike Jacobs believes the Fabians are developing a centre-left agenda for the future: "I see our role as thinking ahead. We're looking at second term ideas that the civil service is not working on."
But it is not just think tanks on the left who can exert influence. Claims by the centre-right Social Market Foundation on education action zones that business and community groups were being prevented from leading zones led to the minister responsible, Steve Byers, admitting that the bidding process needed reform.
They have now turned their attention to charter schools in the United States. These are individual schools which have been taken over by business, teachers and parents. A report in April is expected to portray the idea as a logical extension of education action zones. And Katharine Raymond, acting director of the SMF, believes it will win Government support. "I think No 10 is interested in charter schools. If not it certainly should be," she said.
THE THINK TANKS
Established: 1988 bybusiness, trade unions and academics as an alternative to the free-market think tanks.
Director: Matthew Taylor, former assistant generalsecretary and head of policy at the Labour party.
Areas of interest: Wide-ranging from the media to defence, education to the environment.
Currentfutureeducation projects: Paying for lifelong learning; the University for Industry (UFI) pilot project; parents and schools.
Influence: The heavyweight of left-leaning think-tanks. Well-respected and very influential.
Hits: UFI, Individual Learning Accounts,university tuition fees.
THE FABIAN SOCIETY
Established: 1884 by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, it is affiliated to the Labour party, though editorially independent. The society is the only think tank with a mass membership.
General secretary: Mike Jacobs, economist formerly at the LSE and Lancaster University.
Areas of interest: Defining what it means to be on the Left, long-term policy and political education.
Current educationprojects: "Time for lifelong learning", on how employees can be helped to learn.
Influence: More than 200 Labour MPs are members including Tony Blair and David Blunkett. Published Blair's pamphlet on the Third Way.
Hits: None recently on education but proposed one member one vote for Labour and changing Clause Four.
NEW POLICY INSTITUTE
Established: 1996 by Guy Palmer and Peter Kenway Executive director: Peter Kenway: economist; statistician and former senior manager at London Transport.
Areas of interest: The focus is on policy analysis covering society's essential services from health to education to finance.
Current educationprojects: Before school childcare; local authority voluntary sector partnerships; social exclusion.
Influence: Unproven. Education researcher Nick Donovan used to work for Labour MP, Helen Jackson.
Hits: None in education but sound on water meters.
Established: 1993 by Geoff Mulgan (now No 10 policy unit) and Martin Jacques. Intended to be a non-aligned think-tank offering practical solutions to policy problems.
Director (designate): Tom Bentley, currentlyspecial adviser to David Blunkett.
Areas of Interest: Long-term policy perspective. Tends towards a broad brush policy approach.
Current education projects: Teachers' professional knowledge; Influence: Seen aslightweight by some but very much identified with the New Labour project. Media friendly.
Hits: Civic learning, education action zones.
SOCIAL MARKET FOUNDATION
Established: 1989, by Lord Owen as an independent foundation committed to a social market. The SMF is independent but leans towards the right.
Chairman: Lord Skidelsky, professor of political economy at Warwick University, life peer since 1991.
Areas of interest: How the market operates in public service. Choice and diversity.
Current education projects: US charter schools, conference on "where the state system has failed".
Influence: The SMF is listened to by Downing Street where its emphasis on choice and diversity are well received.
Hit: Opening up education action zones to parent and community groups.
hot data Source: DFEE THETHINK-TANKs IPPR The Fabian Society New Policy Institute Demos Social Market Foundation