Blair promotes his ideas man

13th May 2005 at 01:00
The thinker behind academies and top-up fees has a ministerial post, a peerage - and a direct line to the PM. How will he change things? Jon Slater reports

The appointment of Andrew Adonis as junior education minister sends a clear message that, in education at least, Tony Blair is not for turning.

Promises to listen and learn notwithstanding, the elevation of his trusted former adviser suggests the Prime Minister will use the time left to him to press ahead with radical school reform.

During the past two Parliaments, Lord Adonis has been behind the policies that have done most to upset the educational establishment.

He has pushed through academies, university tuition fees and the privatisation of local authorities, sometimes in the face of opposition from the Education Secretary. Proposals to give parents the power to sack heads, contained in Labour's manifesto, and the more radical parts of the Government's five-year strategy all bear the Adonis fingerprint.

Rows with the former Liberal councillor also contributed to the downfall of Estelle Morris, former education secretary, who resigned in October 2002 after the pair failed to see eye to eye.

In his new position of parliamentary secretary Lord Adonis, a former journalist and Oxford academic, will be expected to improve London schools and help ensure the Government meets its target of 200 academies within five years.

Lord Adonis, who has previously flirted with the idea of expanding parental choice by introducing school vouchers, will also be keen to increase the private sector's role in running schools.

Insiders say that Lord Adonis, a former Islington school governor, shares Mr Blair's instincts, meaning he can rely on the Prime Minister's backing in Whitehall wrangles. Critics say his experience as a governor of the troubled George Orwell school (now Islington Arts and Media college) have given him an unfairly negative view of state education. But although Lord Adonis attended Kingham Hill, a minor public school in Oxfordshire, both his children attend state primary schools.

Like all education ministers, Mr Adonis's room for manoeuvre will be limited by Labour's parliamentary majority which was last week slashed from 161 to 67.

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, expected to be re-appointed chair of the education select committee, said Mr Blair should show he was willing to listen by slowing down the academy programme and radically reforming 14-19 education.

Labour MPs who revolted over foundation hospitals are unlikely to be happy with any more than minor increases in the role of the private sector. Nor is Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who will spend the near future with one eye on a Labour leadership election.

Lord Adonis's place as the PM's education adviser has been taken by Conor Ryan, David Blunkett's former spin doctor, raising concerns that presentation may take priority over policy.

And Philip Collins, former director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank and a keen supporter of using a lottery to allocate places at oversubscribed schools, moves to Number 10 as a public-sector reform guru.

Unsurprisingly, Lord Adonis's appointment brought immediate charges of cronyism. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, described him as an appalling appointment. "This is a man who has had no dialogue at all with the teaching profession, with parents, with other organisations, but has wielded unprecedented power, taking ideas direct from the US and implanting them in the British education system."

But for heads, concern over his enthusiasm for parent power and market reform is balanced by appreciation of his support for school autonomy. In particular, they hope that he will support measures to allow schools to take powers from local authorities.

David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary, described him as "headteachers' friend at court". Other senior union figures privately express the hope that Lord Adonis's elevation and the time he will have to spend on his new duties will lead to him losing the PM's ear.


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