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Young Blairites get big break

Karen Thornton, Warwick Mansell, Jon Slater and Cherry Canovan report on the fall-out from Stephen Byers' resignation

TWO young rising political stars have been promoted to education in the reshuffle caused by Stephen Byers's resignation as Transport Secretary.

David Miliband, 36, fills Mr Byers's previous post as school standards minister, replacing Stephen Timms who moves to trade and industry.

Stephen Twigg, 35, the upstart who defeated former Tory defence secretary Michael Portillo in the 1997 general election, comes in as a replacement for John Healey, junior minister for adult education, who has been sent to the Treasury.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, was said by insiders to consider the appointments "a real coup". It is understood that she had let Downing Street know that she was keen to secure Mr Miliband in the event of a summer reshuffle. The two worked closely together on education policy in opposition.

She also wanted a London MP to cope with the capital's particular problems: Mr Twigg represents Enfield.

Mr Miliband, expected to speak at next week's National Association of Head Teachers' conference instead of Mr Timms, was described by its general secretary David Hart as a "big hitter".

Teachers were divided over whether the ultra-Blairite Mr Miliband's appointment underlined the importance of education to the Prime Minister or whether it was an attempt to rein in Ms Morris. Eyebrows will be raised at the think-tank man's rapid promotion. He was only elected to Parliament last year and has no ministerial experience.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:

"For teachers, it is policies not personalities that matter. But saddest of all would be any changes imposed by the Prime Minister that are designed to curtail Estelle Morris's commitment to making teacher workload her top priority."

But Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said she hoped Mr Miliband's appointment would complement Ms Morris's commitment, knowledge and experience, and help keep education "at the centre of public spending".

Changes elsewhere in the Cabinet could have further implications for education. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott regains the local government brief at a crucial time in discussions on reforming school and local eduation funding.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said:

"It's of crucial importance that we have a successful conclusion to the education funding review: that mustn't be held by by this reorganisation."

Elsewhere, David Lammy, Ms Morris's private parliamentary secretary, has left to become a junior health minister while Mr Timms moves sideways. His early months last summer were chequered with gaffes - including the claim that teacher recruitment problems would be resolved by September.

Mr Timms's faith - he is an evangelical Christian who admitted to The TES that his belief influenced everything he did - was also a point of controversy as the Government backed more faith-based schools.

Union leaders, however, paid tribute to the minister. Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "I'm sorry he has gone. I always found our relationship with him constructive, and he was very open and straightforward."

In his resignation statement, Mr Byers said he hoped people would "remember the part I played in raising school standards when I was at the Department for Education".

Mr Byers was school standards minister from May 1997 to July 1998, when he was involved with the planning of the literacy and numeracy hours.

However, he made a famous gaffe when he notoriously claimed that seven times eight was 54 in a radio discussion on numeracy. He also earned the unions' opprobrium for naming and shaming 18 failing schools, within weeks of Labour's 1997 election victory.

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