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From park bench to political hot seat

Blunkett's Welsh equivalent is learning to flex her ministerial muscle, says Ruth Davies

TES FEBRUARY 4 2000 Briefing 23 ROSEMARY Butler casts an eye around the walls of her National Assembly office like a proud mother. "Look - there are some letters that children sent me after I visited their school before Christmas."

The first thing that strikes you about the woman charged with looking after schools in Wales is that she loves children.

Mrs Butler was appointed Secretary for Education and Children in Wales last May. Visiting schools is one of her favourite tasks and she likes to go early or late in the day, so she can talk to parents. One headteacher said: "I was quite impressed with her. She was very comfortable with the children, there were no contrived situations at all and, as politicians go, that was quite refreshing."

Mrs Butler is a chiropodist by profession. It was her determination to get a park bench to sit on when she took her children to the local playground that prompted her entry into local politics in 1973. She was a school governor for many years and was also on the governing body of the University College of Wales, Newport.

She was chairwoman of Newport Council's leisure services committee for 15 years and has been a member of the Broadcasting Council for Wales and the Sports Council for Wales. Her interest in culture and sport is evident in her approach to the education job. She believes that talents of all kinds, not just academic achievements, should be nurtured in children and sees arts and sport as a great leveller.

Her appointment to education has largely been welcomed by teachers. She seems to be well-liked and has a reputation for being approachable.

Geraint Davies, regional secretary of the NASUWT Wales, said: "She is open with the unions, she has met up with us on many occaions and that is positive. She has listened to us and is prepared to learn."

Edwyn Williams, of the Welsh language teachers' union, UCAC, calls her "one of the best Cabinet ministers we have got".

However, the issue of performance-related pay for teachers has divided Mrs Butler and the trade unions, and she is struggling to get her plans passed by her assembly committee.

She says that the difficulty lies in the fact that the Department for Education and Employment in London still has responsibility for teachers' pay and conditions in England and Wales. The assembly can decide only how appraisals will take place.

The unions are battling for a broader appraisal of teachers than Mrs Butler appears to favour. They are also against appraisals being contracted out to an independent body. But the education secretary believes most teachers are behind her and is determined to get her proposals accepted.

She believes teachers are undervalued: "I think what teachers do for our children is amazing, but they do not feel loved. My job is to make people aware of the good job they are doing ... that they are well-rewarded for the job they do."

Mrs Butler's determination and belief in herself seems to be increasing as she grows into the job. She has been accused of relying too heavily on civil servants.but is now said to be less nervous about speaking in the assembly and is apparently prepared to stand her ground with officials with whom she disagrees.

Almost three decades on from her fight for a park bench, Mrs Butler is learning the power of being a politician. She noticed there was no Christmas tree in the assembly building and insisted one was installed.

Not only did she get her tree, she also got schoolchildren to make the decorations. Unfortunately, not all her battles will be so straightforward.

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