A magus clad in ermine

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Is Lord Adonis, former adviser to the Prime Minister, pulling all the educational strings? asks Jon Slater

Will the real Education Secretary please stand up?

Twenty-four hours after Ruth Kelly, the official incumbent of the post, kicked off the new parliamentary term in the Commons, Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair's former education adviser, was on his feet in the Lords.

Lord Adonis was quickly into his stride promising the Government would do more to tackle low achievement in primaries.

He said: "Children who cannot read cannot learn. We aim to focus significantly more attention on the 20 per cent... who still go through primary school without being able to read or write properly."

The two weeks since his appointment as junior education minister have done nothing to dampen speculation that it is Lord Adonis rather than Ms Kelly who will be running education policy in Labour's third term.

Ms Kelly's gaffe on Radio 4's Today programme - when she wrongly accused John Humphreys of misquoting exclusion statistics - did not help to dispel suggestions that she is an education secretary not entirely in charge of her brief.

David Cameron, Conservative education spokesman, wasted no time in taunting her.

"I am told that many women dream of the day when their Adonis will arrive," he said. "I am not sure that the Secretary of State is one of them."

Lord Adonis, the 42-year-old son of a Greek Cypriot who settled in north London, has become one of the most controversial appointments of recent times. He told the House of Lords: "It's my misfortune to have arrived with rather too much publicity. My wife took particular exception to the jibe that I am more Andrew than Adonis. In my case, Adonis has nothing to do with the body, simply that I hail from Cyprus."

That he was once a Liberal Democrat and has been behind many controversial Labour education policies - academies, tuition fees, the labelling of comprehensive schools as "bog standard" - has done nothing to endear him to his own backbenchers.

The former Financial Times and Observer journalist set out his views on comprehensive education in Class Act, a book co-authored by Stephen Pollard, a fellow ultra-Blairite.

"The comprehensive revolution has not removed the link between education and class but strengthened it... Comprehensive schools have largely replaced selection by ability with selection by class and house price," they wrote.

His short spell as a governor at Islington arts and media college, formerly George Orwell school, may have given Lord Adonis a jaundiced view of state education.

The school became the most high-profile example of the failure of the Government's Fresh Start initiative when a BBC television crew documented the breakdown of discipline that led to the departure of "superhead" Torsten Friedag.

Less well-known is that the junior education minister, educated at a private Oxfordshire school, was until 1999 a governor at the pound;11,000-a-year Queen's college, in Harley Street, London.

Lord Adonis is far from being the product of an affluent upbringing. The new peer had to overcome both poverty and the departure of his mother, Josephine, when he was a toddler. His place at Kingham Hill boarding school was paid for with the help of a local authority grant.

In a report in the Mail on Sunday, it was revealed that his half-brother Alexis, 23, recently pulled out of officer training at Sandhurst because of his opposition to the Iraq war. Nicos Adonis, their father, said of his two sons: "One works with Blair, the other does not want to be Blair's killer."

Even critics of his politics admit his towering intelligence. A formidable brain, a close relationship with the Prime Minister and an ability to make things happen in Whitehall - not to mention a slightly donnish charm - have all contributed to his reputation as an adviser who got things done.

It is these qualities which have persuaded Tony Blair to make him the minister in charge of academies and London schools, a position in which he can implement rather than formulate the Blairite agenda

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

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