Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the children, schools, and families select committee, is a favourite target of parliamentary sketch writers who often describe him as a New Labour poodle due to his unwavering support for the government. However, a closer look at his voting record shows that he is certainly not aligned with the government on all issues. He was one of just three Labour MPs to vote against the hunting ban and won an award from the pro-hunting Spectator magazine for speech of the year. Despite this, he has voted for government policies on ID cards, foundation hospitals, anti-terror laws, top-up fees, and the Iraq war.

Sheerman’s record as select committee chairman, which he has held for ten years, suggests that his critics are a touch unkind. Recent reports by the committee on the national curriculum, testing regimes in schools, and the children’s plan have all been sharp, critical assessments that hardly suggest complete obedience to the government. While he is a mainstream Labour loyalist, some committee members have noted that Sheerman’s questioning has become sharper and more radical in recent years.

Sheerman admits that he has become a better committee chairman with experience. His role is to call the government to account and give ministers a hard time, he says. While he supports the government on non-educational matters, he is happy to speak out when he believes educational policies have failed. While there were doubts about his leadership in the early years, he says that people are kinder to him now.

In 1992, Sheerman requested a less challenging portfolio from the new leader, John Smith, due to his responsibilities as a parent to four young children. The home affairs portfolio, which included Northern Ireland, often required him to be away. He became the spokesperson for disability issues, but he anticipated returning to a more substantial role. Blair, who took over after Smith’s death, told him he would eventually return, but he did not. Sheerman lamented the loss of his mentors, Hattersley and Smith.

When he became the chairman, he did not have ministerial aspirations for long. He enjoys his role and believes he has had a significant impact. Testing was a "quick win" for the committee because the government dropped key stage 3 tests for 14-year-olds. Admissions were "absolutely bloody awful." He knew schools were not prioritizing special needs and children in care as they were supposed to, and faith schools bad. As a result, the admissions code was toughened up and made mandatory. Ballots in oversubscribed schools were also given the green light. He also played a significant role in the report on special educational needs. Finally, he criticized Blair’s final schools white paper and frequently visited No. 10.

Sheerman was born in Sunbury-on-Thames in 1940, the youngest of four children in a family that wasn’t well-off. His father was a charismatic man who enjoyed a drink and "lived on his wits." Sheerman attended Hampton Grammar School on a scholarship and felt out of place. He left before A-levels to work in the chemical industry. However, his wife, who he later married, inspired him to take his A-levels at Kingston Technical College. He ended up studying at the London School of Economics at 21. Universities were growing rapidly at the time, but they had a small graduate pool from which to hire lecturers. As a result, he immediately obtained a political lectureship position at Swansea, where he spent 12 years. While there, he wrote a biography of Harold Laski, Labour’s most influential intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. He began to develop his interests as a social entrepreneur and started the first co-operative development agency in Wales. He has also initiated 44 not-for-profit social enterprises that employ 50 people. One of his recent projects includes founding a national center for learning outside the classroom, located at the house of the poet John Clare in Cambridgeshire.

Sheerman was content with his life as a lecturer and a local council member. However, after he and his wife lost their first baby at birth, he became depressed. The doctor advised him to change his life. He no longer wanted to lecture about politics; he desired to do it.


While his committee reports grow more critical, he remains hesitant to fully denounce the government. He does, however, acknowledge that education has improved significantly since 1997. When it comes to academies, his stance is unclear. "There has been a noticeable improvement in education where all other methods have failed," he says. Is this because of private sponsorship? "It’s a matter of partnership," he replies. "Having the private sector involved is beneficial, but too much private involvement is problematic. I prefer partnerships with universities or local councils. Self-made individuals who want to create a school in their own image are less desirable than decent charities or universities." He aligns with the Brown government’s policies on the matter.

Will he run for parliament in the next election, at the age of 70? "Of course. It’s the best job in the world." If the Tory party is elected, he will likely lose his select committee chair, but he would love to continue in parliament regardless.

Feeling he has not conveyed his radical side enough (after being asked whether he always leans towards the Labour right), he condemns the alleged high teaching standards in private schools. "If you can’t produce good A-level results from pre-selected students at St. Paul’s School, you should be immediately removed from teaching." As for MPs, he urges all of them to send their children to state schools, as should university vice-chancellors and heads of children’s services who earn taxpayer money. Would this apply to senior civil servants? "Yes," he responds sternly. While acknowledging it may be impossible to enforce, he believes it is an ethical matter.

Westminster may not be impressed by his charisma or speaking skills, but fellow parliamentarians admire his commitment and enthusiasm. He may not make for an interesting article in a parliamentary sketch, but he is undoubtedly a popular MP among his colleagues.


  • kileybaxter

    I am a 34-year-old educational blogger and student. I enjoy writing about education and sharing my insights and experiences with others. I hope to use this blog as a way to share my knowledge and help others learn more about the subjects that interest me.

Some Ministers Have Made No Impact’


I am a 34-year-old educational blogger and student. I enjoy writing about education and sharing my insights and experiences with others. I hope to use this blog as a way to share my knowledge and help others learn more about the subjects that interest me.

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