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A Cicero among sixth-formers

Even at school, the Liberal Democrat leader was always game for a good argument. Michael Shaw reports

Charles Kennedy can always turn to his old English teacher if he gets stuck for education policies.

The Liberal Democrat leader remains in close touch with Bob Dick, the man who got him interested in debating when he was a pupil at Lochaber high, in Fort William. His former head of English, now retired, continues to give him advice. "We are still great friends, and I see him regularly at home," Mr Kennedy said.

"One piece of advice he gave very early on has guided a lot of my thinking.

Mr Dick always said, 'What's keeping your feet on the ground? Follow your dreams. If you really want to make a success of something, at least try, because the worst that can happen is you don't succeed - and you'll learn from that experience.' That's very relevant to our position as a party."

Mr Kennedy believes the grounding he gained in Mr Dick's debating club played a part in his political rise. Now 45, he became one of the youngest MPs at just 23.

Mr Dick, 69, told The TES that he had put Charles Kennedy on the debating team, even though he was two years younger than the other pupils involved.

"He was such a talented speaker and so articulate on politics," he said.

"He would turn up 10 minutes before a debate, very cool, ask which side he was on and start talking. I tried to get him to prepare more." Lochaber high can also take credit for the Liberal Democrat's love of the spotlight, which has earned him the nickname "Chatshow Charlie". While at the school, he appeared in a range of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, and once played the lord high executioner in The Mikado.

Mr Kennedy is so fond of his old school that he is keen to send his first child, due in mid-April, there although he is not sure whether the baby will be brought up in London or Fort William. He is sure though that his child will be going to a state school - "there's no question about that".

While Labour and the Conservatives have tried to outdo each other with policies that give parents greater choice, the Liberal Democrats say parents would prefer high-quality education from their nearest school.

They have pledged to scrap the Office for Standards in Education and to get rid of Labour's baby bonds and use the pound;1.5 billion saved to reduce infant classes to 20. Mr Kennedy said: "When you talk to people about education, they are not talking about artificial choices. What they want is good-quality provision in their community."

A TES poll this month suggested that the proportion of teachers backing the Lib Dems had grown from 18 to 20 per cent since the last general election, and that the party is most popular with teachers at independent schools.

Mr Kennedy believes his party attracts private-school staff be-cause they are "not seen to be conducting the education debate on some kind of ideological, out-dated, class-war basis".

As he faces the challenges of an election and a new-born baby, Mr Kennedy is trying to quit smoking. "I speak fondly about going to school but, heavens above, education on the problems of smoking-related conditions, alcohol-related conditions, sex-related conditions was absolutely minuscule," he said. "We've come a long way since then."


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