Out of the shadows into a place in the sun

May 16, 1997

IF MINISTERIAL hopefuls endured a tense weekend after the general election as they waited for the call from Downing Street, former Shadow Cabinet advisers had an even tougher time.

Disappointed politicians at least have the consolation of a role, and salary, as a backbench MP. No such luck for the researcher who fails to make it into one of the limited number of publicly-funded special adviser posts.

"Some of my friends have got powerful jobs in Whitehall. Others are signing on," said one researcher.

Conor Ryan, the 33-year-old Irishman who has served David Blunkett for the last four years is at the happy end of the equation.

A journalist who has written for Tribune and New Statesman and worked as a press officer for the Inner London Education Authority, Mr Ryan is more spin-doctor than policy adviser and will continue his assiduous service to the national press at the same time as providing the link between the department and the Labour party.

But Mr Blunkett will not be going short of informed policy advice. Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education has been hailed by Tony Blair as "one of the most stimulating thinkers in British education today".

Professor Barber, 41, called last year for the Department for Education and Employment to be renamed the Department of Lifelong Learning.

He joins a department with an unchanged name, albeit including a minister for lifelong learning in Kim Howells, as special adviser on standards and effectiveness in schools.

An Oxford history graduate, he headed Labour's Literacy Task Force and has been both a Labour chair of education and research and education officer of the National Union of Teachers.

But he has enough cross-party credibility to have been appointed by Gillian Shephard to the special team sent in to Hackney Downs school in 1995.

While Professor Barber was advising Labour on literacy, Newcastle University's professor of education Peter Reynolds, was providing parallel advice on numeracy for Labour.

He will now head the new Government's Numeracy Task Force to "boost standards in maths" and on his first day in the job reacted like a true academic by calling for better research to establish best teaching practice.

"I don't have the answers yet, but the news is that we intend to find out," he said.

"This will be the first time we will have a genuine scientific attempt to review all the evidence from academic studies about what works. There are enormous disagreements in the field."

While junior ministers are not given special advisers, the lifelong learning team of Tessa Blackstone and Kim Howells will not have to look far for informed policy suggestions.

Nick Pierce, the highly-regarded adviser to former further and higher education spokesman Bryan Davies, is to join the Lifelong Learning project at the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Labour-leaning think-tank found- ed by Baroness Blackstone in 1988.

While the IPPR gains Mr Pierce, it loses economist Dan Corry, one of John Smith's team of advisers while Shadow Chancellor before 1992 and editor of the journal New Economy, who has joined Margaret Beckett at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Elsewhere in Whitehall Ian MacKenzie, formerly president of the University of East Anglia students' union and press officer at Southampton Institute for Higher Education, will bring formidable political energy and organisational skills to advising former education spokesman Ann Taylor as she wrestles with the government's legislative programme as Leader of the House of Commons and President of the Council.

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