Backbenchers swing into frontline action

July 18, 1997

If the Labour front bench wants advice on A level reform, it need look no further than the chair of its backbench education committee for some informed opinion.

John Gunnell, 63, member for Morley and Rothwell, elected as chairman last week when the committee met for the first time, was involved in early work on the development of the International Baccalaureate when he was head of chemistry at the United Nations School in New York between 1962 and 1970.

"It has become a very academic qualification, rather more so than we intended. But I still think that the principle of a more broadly-based qualification is the right one," he said.

He can also point to an academic background, as a lecturer in Leeds University's centre for studies in science education from 1970 to 1988.

Mr Gunnell said one of the committee's key roles would be to ensure that Labour ministers, locked into heavy Whitehall administrative timetables, did not lose touch with party or professional opinion in the country. "We want to ensure that they are kept in touch with the views of people in all parts of the education service, particularly in response to things like the white paper or the Dearing report. We will also want to warn them where policies are causing concern in the country."

About 100 backbenchers - each is allowed to join three groups - have signed up as committee members. "It is now a matter of finding out how many are interested in being active," he said.

The committee elected three other officers. The two vice chairs will be Gerry Steinberg, MP for Durham City since 1987 and formerly chair of the committee from 1990 to 1996 and Sally Keeble, newly elected member for Northampton North and assistant director of external relations for the Inner London Education Authority from 1984 to 1986. Secretary of the committee is another new member, the historian Gordon Marsden (Blackpool North), editor of History Today since 1985 and a part-time Open University tutor.

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