Back to schools for 'Two Brains'

6th January 2006 at 00:00
When asked if his new brief was his first choice, David Willetts hesitates slightly.

It is understandable. After quitting the Conservative leadership race in September, many speculated that his backing for losing candidate David Davis was a ploy to become shadow chancellor. But if there is disappointment, the 49-year-old is keen not to show it, twice stressing his eagerness to take on education for a second time.

His mother and grandfather taught in primary schools in his native Birmingham and he is looking forward to listening to the profession.

"I have enormous admiration for teachers, their professionalism and commitment," he says.

But anyone expecting anything too teacher-friendly from the Tory, nicknamed "Two Brains", could be disappointed because he will also be consulting Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector and teachers' bete noire.

Mr Willetts will not be bound by last year's party manifesto. "There are not many good things about being in opposition, but at least you have the opportunity to approach a subject afresh," he said.

Education will come under an 18-month review of Conservative public sector policy announced yesterday, to be headed by Baroness Pauline Perry, a former chief inspector of schools who was the first woman to head a polytechnic and is now president of Lucy Cavendish college, Cambridge university.

This type of cross-departmental approach reflects a change in Mr Willetts'

thinking since his previous time as shadow education secretary from 1998-99. It will run alongside an education commission headed by Sir Bob Balchin.

"I have become more aware of the interconnectedness between things," he said.

That last spell was "frustratingly" short, but long enough to impress John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of College and School Leaders, who said: "He mastered the education brief more quickly and thoroughly than most opposition spokesmen."

Sir Bob Balchin, who advised Mr Willetts at the time, describes him as an excellent choice: "He believes as I do that Conservative policy has got to be concerned with the 90 per cent of parents using ordinary state schools and not just the 7 per cent in the independent sector and 3 per cent in grammars."

Mr Willetts is not part of that 90 per cent, having opted to send his 17-year-old daughter Imogen to Godolphin and Latymer and 13 year-old son Matthew to St Paul's, both London private schools. But he was state-educated, at King Edward's school, Birmingham, then a direct-grant grammar, and says he would like the sectors to come closer together.

"I can envisage a stage where the exact legal status of the school you go to ceases to matter," he said.

Ironically, his clearest policy at the moment is to back the philosophy outlined by Tony Blair in the controversial schools white paper.

On future Conservative policy Mr Willetts cites two principles: more school autonomy and the need for government to focus on classroom technique rather than structures. But when the two collide, it seems that central control may win out.

"Ultimately, if we are taking money off families to pay for education, there is always going to be a legitimate role for the national government in deciding what goes on in the classroom in return."

Also appointed to the Conservative education team are Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister; John Hayes, shadow vocational education minister; Boris Johnson, shadow higher education minister; Maria Miller, shadow education minister; Baroness Buscombe and Baroness Morris of Bolton, both shadow ministers.

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

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