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Poacher turned gamekeeper

Malcolm Wicks, the new lifelong learning minister, was blooded in education while holding the Government to account as a backbench MP. He talks to Ngaio Crequer.

"SO WHERE did you do your training for the job," The TES asked the minister.

"On the education select committee" replies new lifelong learning minister, Malcolm Wicks. As a backbench MP he had chaired the committee before being called into government. "It was an incredibly valuable experience, very informative. They were my teachers."

The former university lecturer - social administration at Brunel - has excellent credentials for the job. His interests have always revolved around injustice and poverty, a perfect training ground for the social exclusion agenda.

"Once I would have said I wanted to be social security minister. If you use the words social security, not referring just to benefits, then clearly the best social security is a good job. And the best way to get that is through good learning and teaching.

"My background is in social policy. Profesionally I have never majored in education but I was a university teacher, and I was a Workers Educational Association teacher in York in my early 20s.

"I started teaching people older and wiser than me, at the age of 21. But most of my thoughts about education were about my own three children, and serving as a school governor."

Unlike his state-educated children Mr Wicks went to a private school in Guernsey. His children went to John Ruskin college, south London

"I was not good at academic study, failed O-level British constituion and went to what was then North West London poly to take A-levels. "It was very adult, very FE and it got me into the London School of Economics. I am a former FE student and proud of it."

Mr Wicks was talking in Bournemouth during the Labour party conference, where he had earlier announced the next steps in a pound;54 million programme to establish a learning and careers advice service. It will offer free guidance and support to adults, whether unemployed or not, and encourage people to take lifelong learning seriously. The centres will be in accessible places, such as supermarkets.

"There might be some organisations meeting such needs but many individuals are puzzled about where they can get information on lifelong learning," said Mr Wicks.

The minister meanwhile suffers from the same problem as his boss, Tony Blair. "I am part of a generation that did not take to computers." So his own lifelong learning is tutoring from his children, all in their early twenties, plus some support from his department.

One of his biggest challenges will be to ensure that the new FE inspection framework works. There has been consternation in the sector that Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, is now in charge of all 16-19 inspections, including colleges.

Mr Wicks, when chair of the select committee, was famously in the anti Woodhead camp, challenging him on the basis that he had no consensus or popular support in education. He now says: "I will not say I am on the other side of the fence but I am in a very different role as a minister."

Further education is keen to keep its unique brand of self-assessment and many colleges think that Mr Woodhead would oppose that. "I do not think that self-assessment and external inspection are mutually incompatible," says Mr Wicks.

"There has to be something in inspection for the wider community: 'is it all well? Are we getting value for money?'

"We need to fashion ways for inspections to work together, especially as colleges cater for everyone." And so has he full confidence in Mr Woodhead? "I look forward to working with him."

The statistic that shocks him is the 160,000 young people between 16-18 who are not in education, training nor jobs. "We have to give these people second and then third chances. If we fail to get them in, then it is failure for all of us."

He says there is also an association between the disaffection of these people and teenage pregnacy, crime and drugs. "Even if you looked at it with an accountant's cold heart you see the benefit costs."

A priority will be to ensure that every young person has access to first-class advice. "I feel strongly that the existing careers service is patchy. For some it is third rate and we must make it first rate very quickly for every youngster.

"Just look at A-levels. There is this vulgar competition between institutions. We know about pension mis-selling and we must end post-16 mis-selling."

George Mudie, his predecessor, famously answered the question of whether school sixth-forms would be safe with one word - yes. Mr Wicks says he does not want a theoretical debate about whether schools were better than colleges.

"If there is any institution offering first-class education and maintaining numbers, it will have a crucial role in the future."

George Mudie only lasted a year in the job. How long did he think he had? He laughs "That is up to the Prime Minister. Lifelong learning is about creating a more equal system. If I have not achieved that in a year he would be right to get rid of me."

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