A loyalist who speaks his mind

11th February 2011 at 00:00
The new Tory chair of the education select committee hated school and failed his Cambridge law degree. While he thinks Michael Gove is 'spot on' in his analysis of current shortcomings, he has worries about the solutions proffered

A common criticism of Barry Sheerman, long-standing former chair of the Commons schools select committee, was that he was too often a critical friend of government rather than its judge.

It was only during his latter years - which happened to coincide with the bullish Ed Balls' tenure as schools secretary - that Mr Sheerman began to bare his teeth.

To say it was a surprise when the septuagenarian was revealed to be behind a coup to oust then prime minister Gordon Brown a year before the election was something of an understatement.

Succeeding Mr Sheerman in the hot seat of the education select committee (as it is now known) is Graham Stuart.

Although it is unlikely that the Conservative MP will be looking to eject David Cameron any time soon, nor will he be a pushover.

"I find it more difficult, more challenging sometimes, supporting the Government," Mr Stuart says candidly. "By which I mean, I am more likely to be criticised as some slavish loyalist. But I have tended to speak my mind.

"The system now means the select committee chair is elected by the whole House, and you have to be answerable to the whole House, but you also have to be answerable to your conscience," he adds.

Select committee chairmanship is always a difficult line to tread for an ambitious politician. Along with the elevated profile comes a duty to be publicly critical of your party's policies. It is a dilemma of which Mr Stuart is acutely aware.

"I would never say that I wouldn't aspire to ministerial office. But, sadly, or otherwise, I've not yet learnt how to make my words meet the needs of my career," he says. "I've been elected for this parliament as the committee chair, and I would be surprised if any select committee chair wasn't still in place at the end of the parliament."

But education scrutiny is an unlikely role for the MP for Beverley and Holderness. First, Mr Stuart hated school. Educated at top Scottish boarding school, Glenalmond College, he says that out of his 31 terms he enjoyed only one - the last.

But whatever his misgivings about Glenalmond, offers of places from both Oxford and Cambridge were forthcoming. He chose the latter, reading philosophy, then law.

But with a successful sideline in publishing, starting with What's On? Guide to Cambridge, he failed his law degree in his final year.

"So the chair of the education select committee has no degree at all," he says. "Which upset my father a great deal."

However, Mr Stuart is conscious that the opportunity he spurned is too often denied to today's most disadvantaged children. And it is because of this that he believes the Government has put forward a "compelling" case for change.

"Michael Gove's analysis of what has been wrong up to now is spot on," he acknowledges. "And to think we have people complaining that only 40-odd children on free school meals go to Oxford and Cambridge is irrelevant. Well, seeing that the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, the leader of the opposition, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer and vast numbers of others all went to Oxbridge, I don't think it's irrelevant.

He adds: "Large numbers of people brought up on free school meals might be effectively excluded from that - I don't think that's irrelevant at all."

Mr Stuart also agrees that the urgency at which the education secretary is bringing about his reform agenda is necessary.

The abolition of the secondary school rebuilding programme, Building Schools for the Future, he says, was also long overdue.

"Nobody wants a child in a leaking, freezing classroom," he comments, taking a deep breath before adding: "Equally, though, the last thing you want to do is to find the Government has gone on an orgy of spending with little link to performance, leaving behind a vast number of leaking roofs and poor buildings because so much has been spent on consultants and Ceausescu-esque monuments to political vanity, rather than utilising limited resources to the maximum betterment of children's education."

It is a characteristic statement from a politician who finds it difficult not to speak his mind. And although Mr Stuart supports the Government's analysis of the education system's shortcomings, he is more sceptical of whether the measures brought in to address these failings will have the desired effect.

Free schools, for instance, he says, will remain "statistically minor" unless for-profit companies are allowed to run them.

He believes that the take-up of the Government's various policy initiatives - free schools, charter schools or academies - can be explained by his own philosophical theory, Stuart's Law.

This, he says, dictates that "every innovation in education is successful". An innovator tries something new to fight the old orthodoxy, and makes it work. Other "equally evangelical" educators carry out the same innovation and illustrate solid evidence of it working.

"When the politician goes round and sees it implemented in a number of places, he comes back so moved by the brilliant changes brought about by that approach that he thinks he has the silver bullet to slay educational disadvantage," Mr Stuart says.

"In your bog-standard comprehensive - to coin a phrase - where the head is neither the worst nor the best, we get to find out whether that particular approach genuinely leads to improvement," he adds.

Despite improving results from the first wave of academies, Mr Stuart believes there is more to improving standards than autonomy. It is the quality of teachers that is the key to unlocking the problems that beset the education system.

The education secretary, who entitled his white paper The Importance of Teaching - a move Mr Stuart sees as exactly right - may well agree. But following the publication of the Education Bill, questions remain.

"If you move from the white paper to the bill, you ask what are the provisions within the bill which are likely to improve the quality of teaching?" he says. "Autonomy on its own does not necessarily improve teacher quality. It can help in a broader sense in raising the status of teaching, I hope. But perhaps we've seen insufficient detail of how the performance management of schools and within schools can be improved."

More needs to be set out by the Government to show how underperforming teachers already in the system can be identified and removed, he says. It's an area, he adds, that is altogether "uglier" although necessary.

"[Former head of Ofsted] Chris Woodhead was vilified for saying 15 per cent of teachers basically weren't up to it," Mr Stuart says. "Whatever the number, the most expensive part of our school system are the teachers who aren't doing the job. Failing to tackle them and persuading them into taking their many talents in some other direction is a huge deadweight cost."

He adds: "When you look at teachers who aren't capable, primary teachers whose children can't read and write after a number of years, who aren't removed from the profession, the impact on the lives of the young people is immense, the economic impact is immense. We need to focus more on that."

And it is this "impact" that the chair of the education committee is highly conscious of. The price of politicians getting things wrong is something Mr Stuart is characteristically philosophical about.

"The responsibility of being involved with education is that everything you do, everything you influence for good or ill is like throwing a pebble into a lake - ripples go in all directions," he says.

"You hope that your overall impact is positive. But you look back at people who are much brighter than you, and equally well-motivated in the last government and the governments before and you see some of the negative outcomes.

"It is not easy," he muses. "Education is so varied and diverse - it is so enormous - and what you do has implications for decades in the lives of individuals and collectively to the welfare of the nation."


1962: Born, Carlisle

- Education

Glenalmond College, Perth 1982 Selwyn College, Cambridge to read philosophy and then law. Simultaneously founded CSL Publishing

- Career

1998: Cambridge councillor

2005: MP for Beverley and Holderness

2010: Re-elected with a majority of 12,987. Elected chair of the Commons education select committee.

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