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Pundits praise the bruiser

Top-up fees may prove hard to sell to the public. And last week's higher education White Paper certainly enraged the Sun and the Daily Mail. But the policy persuaded many broadsheet pundits to hail the rising reputation of its author, the new Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

"Mr Clarke deserves praise for attempting to salvage our higher education system," gushed the Independent's leader writer. "Clarke impressed the Commons," admitted the usually scornful Daily Telegraph. The Observer declared that Neil Kinnock's chief of staff when Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were fresh-faced MPs was now the Chancellor's main rival in any Labour leadership battle. "We must barrack for the bruiser," said Sunday Times interviewer Jasper Gerard, "if only to save us from Brown."

And as the Education Secretary ably took on all comers in a Channel 4 News debate, it seems hard to believe it is only a 100 days since he replaced Estelle Morris. Yet Clarke has also fallen into traps because of his admirable willingness to answer questions candidly. One laid by Sir David Frost had Clarke putting the pound;21,000 maximum debt in lights, rather than the pound;60 monthly repayments facing average graduate earners.

And he has reignited the grammar schools row by ostentatiously publishing a critical inspection report on selective Kent. Yet Blair will not allow the balloting rules to change. So Clarke may disappoint anti-selection campaigners - and upset middle-class grammar supporters.

The Education Secretary has made important speeches on schools and colleges. But he has left most of the detail, including the teachers'

contract and the 14-19 Green Paper, to David Miliband.

Clarke has passed his university challenge, albeit with strong opposition still to be overcome. He now faces his school exams - which may prove harder still.

Clarke's penpals, 21

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