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Team players on and off pitch

Ngaio Crequer and Ian Nash meet two new FE ministers who share a passion for local issues and football

HIS boss used to be John Monks, head of the TUC, but in a curious reversal, John Healey, the new minister for adult skills and lifelong learning now has the upper hand.

Mr Healey, now aged 41, was Monks' campaign director between 1994-7. Now the minister will again be meeting the TUC general secretary, who is deputy chair of the Learning and Skills Council and chair of its Adult Learning Committee.

But Mr Healey erupts with astonishment when he is described as Monks' "boss". "I am not his boss. When people like Monks contribute to the CBI or the LSC then these individuals are allies. There is not a line management or status line for me to exercise."

Other people who have worked with Mr Healey all describe him as a "nice" man, very easy to get on with, but also very committed.

He has one of the biggest jobs in government - between now and 2004 to tackle the problems of 750,000 people who are functionally illiterate or innumerate.

He is confident he can meet the target. "Most of the building blocks are in place. My job in the early days is to do a full MOT to ensure we have the right strategy and the relationships are in place. If I am happy with that MOT then my job is to keep an eye on things and to be champion for the policy, and a motivator."

He will, he says, be working closely with ministers in other departments and says the break-up of the old Department for Education and Employment will be no barrier. A smaller department, of education and skills will mean it can be more focused.

"But if the provision of adult basic skills is seen as just about education, we will have failed to make an impact. This is an issue of economic challenge, it is an employability issue, a productivity and business issue, as well as about social inclusion and education."

So he wants to influence other departments - the Treasury, where he worked with Chancellor Gordon Brown as his parliamentary private secretary, and the Department of Trade and Industry where he will raise issues about the competitiveness of small businesses. As he points out, the Treasury is already working on a tax credit bill which could lead to incentives for training.

His background has prepared him for his new job. He has campaigned against low pay, for the minimum wage and employee rights. His constituency is Wentworth, in the Rother and Dearne Valleys in South Yorkshire. Once a thriving mining community, now there are no pits left. He defended the New Deal programme for the young and long-term unemployed, warning that the alternative was "a generation who do not do jobs, but do cars, their neighbours' houses and drugs instead".

He was in fact involved in designing the New Deal. He would like to think that the "vigour" with which that programme is being applied, can be transferred to adult skills' programmes.

Healey was educated at a comprehensive school, then an independent, and won a scholarship to Cambridge where he studied archaeology and anthropology, and then social and political science. But he has close ties with local further education college Dearne Valley, in Rotherham. He says it has become a centre of vocational excellence before its time. "The college played a central role offering training for 8,000 new jobs and providing early workplace development." The college says he has been very supportive, helping them on numerous occasions, making frequent visits.

Just before the election his predecessor Malcolm Wicks made a big play about student support - the "scandal" of those in FE deprived of financial help.

So will Healey come up with the goods? Two weeks into the job the former Treasury man is not giving much away. "We are looking at it. Student support has got to be an important part of the picture we try to build up. Work that Malcolm Wicks started is there to be taken up and followed through. I cannot say any more than that."

When not working his time is taken up by his family - "not much time for anything else". "I have a six-year-old son, Alex, and he has been hassling me for a season ticket to Rotherham. It looks like I am set to become a football fan," he says.

Only days after getting his job Alex had his first ever sports day. Did Dad go? "Oh yes, the private office has been very accommodating so far." Quite so.

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