Awkward MP puts faith in academy

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Frank Field has often been at odds with Labour policy - but he passionately supports the new state independent schools. Biddy Passmore reports

What is former Labour minister Frank Field up to, joining the board of an independent school group chaired by former Tory minister Dame Angela Rumbold?

It might seem a surprising move for the 61-year-old MP for Birkenhead who, however eccentric his political stance, has always championed the rights of the poor. He was a doughty campaigner against child poverty in the 1970s.

But he does not see "any difficulties at all" in his recent decision to join the United Learning Trust, the firm set up by the independent Church Schools Company to raise funds for city academies.

"I have a moderate passion to raise standards in education," he says. A devout Anglo-Catholic, he sees the Church as central to raising school standards and promoting decent behaviour. And he has always supported centres of educational excellence in cities.

Indeed, when Margaret Thatcher (and he seems to have a "moderate passion" for her too) announced the establishment of the first city technology colleges in the mid-80s, Mr Field raised Labour eyebrows by calling for more. "Our side were ranting about how shocking it was," he recalls. "I got up and said I thought it shameful it wasn't an announcement for 1,000 colleges.

"I have never had the standard Labour party view," he added.

You can say that again. The child of working-class Tories, his view of education was shaped by attending St Clement Dane's grammar school in west London and having "a wonderful time". Frank Field was a Conservative until the sixth form, when he joined the Young Socialists.

He has always been pro-grammar school, disappointing comprehensive heads in his constituency, and opposed to the abolition of independent schools.

In 1997, he did toe the Labour line on abolishing the assisted places scheme that subsidised the private-school fees of poorer children. However this was only because it formed part of the first Labour manifesto he had really felt able to support.

But he has for some years wanted to sidestep the issue of selection, keeping the remaining grammars and making all other secondaries specialist.

On this, as on other issues, the party has come round to his view. Many of the causes he championed over his 24 years in Parliament - sacking bad teachers, putting more police on the beat, cracking down on benefit fraud, a welfare system that "works with the grain of human nature" - are now Labour policy.

"I always like to think I've had a good feel for working-class attitudes and I'm so glad the Labour party has now joined me," he says.

Since his early years in Parliament, when he was briefly a front-bench education spokesman, most of his energy has been spent on welfare reform.

For much of the 1990s he was the outspoken chairman of the social security select committee and became minister of for welfare reform when Labour took power in 1997. However, this gentle but awkward free-thinker was sacked a year later. Since then, he has been a thorn in ministers' sides over pensions.

Now he is returning to education driven by his concern about anti-social behaviour. He sees feckless families raising thuggish children as the greatest current threat to society and says: "The only defence we've got is schools."

He "jumped at" the chance to join the trust and help launch more academies.

So far the trust has opened one in Moss Side, Manchester this year and two more will open next September, in Lambeth in south London and in Northampton. The company aims eventually to sponsor 10. Mr Field would like one to be near his constituency, on Merseyside.

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