Commons people

30th May 1997 at 01:00
When is a teacher not a teacher? Answer: When he or she has just been elected to the House of Commons.

The stone corridors of power are now thronging with people who until the end of last term were more familiar with school corridors. Of the new Labour intake, teachers and lecturers are the single biggest occupational group (104), with 38 of them having won seats in Parliament for the first time. Combined with existing MPs with a teaching background - such as Estelle Morris, Labour's school standards minister - people with a professional knowledge of education now form a significant part of Tony Blair's majority.

They come from all sectors, from university lecturers to infant teachers,and all regions, from Aberdeen to Golders Green. "We've got a background in common but there's no Labour newcomers' education club," says Vernon Coaker, formerly deputy head of a Nottingham comprehensive and now the honourable member for Gedling. "We'll share a commitment to keeping education at the top of the agenda. And, whatever part of the service you've come from, you bring awareness of some of the difficulties there are in turning rhetoric into reality. You're hopeful you can bring that to bear on policy-making."

Hopeful is the word. Candidates who felt constrained during the campaign dutifully to mouth manifesto pledges of restraint, are now speaking with their own voices, full of hope and excitement. "I'm mesmerised," says Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South. "There was so much cynicism before the election. I always said it was nonsense, and it is absolute nonsense. The world is now a brighter place."

Anne Begg took her three-way marginal by a majority of over 3, 300, beating the Conservative incumbent into third place. "I was in a state of controlled shock," she says, "if that's not an oxymoron." The English teacher from Arbroath Academy lives on in Anne Begg, but now she's staying in London hotels during the week and planning her maiden speech, likely to be on devolution. "Speech-making is one of my hobbies. I'll feel nervous on the day, but I've always done debating at school and teams that I've coached have won competitions."

As a wheelchair user, Anne Begg has been given priority in the queue for office space and has a centrally located room much in demand among the newcomers. "I've people squatting in my office, " she says. "I haven't been lonely. The Scottish MPs tend to stick together. "

Like all the new members, she has an enormous amount of post to deal with.Her parents came down to London for the state opening of Parliament, and spent an hour slitting envelopes for her. Life as an MP has at least one thing in common with teaching, she says. "Both jobs are ruled by bells. When the division bell rings, you have to run. But in school, when you're at work you're in work. Now I can be driving around and speaking to people and doing things and it's still work."

Some of the teachers-turned-politicians hardly expected the career change.Rudi Vis won Margaret Thatcher's former (redrawn) seat of Finchley and Golders Green with a 15.1 per cent swing. He admits it was a surprise. "I didn't believe the exit polls," says the 56-year-old economics lecturer. "The official result came at 2.59am, and I had not known I had won until 2.30. It really wasn't expected."

Mr Vis has had to seek special dispensation from the whips to spend some afternoons at the University of East London attending to his final-year economics students. To abandon them at this late stage, he says, would "ruin entirely the peace of mind of already very nervous students". He has three more weeks of classroom teaching to do, 1,100 letters to answer, and no office, telephone or secretarial support yet organised at the House. "There is a little pressure building up," he concedes on the telephone at midnight, the only time he can talk to The TES. "But one knows that in one or two months things will have changed and you will giggle about it. This is a problem that 90 per cent of the British public would love to have. The Parliamentary Labour Party is a hive of happiness."

Malcolm Savidge, 51, looks modestly pleased. He taught maths at the Kincorth Academy in Aberdeen for 20 years before being elected to represent the newly created seat of Aberdeen North, with a majority of 10,010. Now he sits on the Thames-sid e terrace at the House eating coffee cake for breakfast as the wind blows off the river.

Only in his dreams, he says, did he imagine winning the kind of majority he got. "One realises this is how one will be summed up in one's obituary," he says. On leave since the election was called, he went back to school to say goodbye to former colleagues the day after the results were announced. "It's not very often that the head can put 'elected to the House of Commons' under the 'reason for leaving' section," he says, with satisfaction.

When Mr Savidge says that "the desire to work for a better world" was what motivated him to enter politics, you somehow believe him. But for now he's pre-occupied with more mundane matters - moving into a flat, finding his way around Westminster, buying portcullis cufflinks for his relatives in the gift shop. "I certainly don't feel I'm a teacher any longer, but taking in the fact that you're an MP takes a little while, " he says.

School experience may come in useful. "If the rump of the Tory opposition gets rowdy, it's a situation I could feel familiar with. " But with 16 years' experience on the city council, Malcolm Savidge is not a fledgling politician. How much does he hope to achieve from the back benches? "I'm sceptical of politicians who boast about what they've achieved, " he says. "I learned in local government that if progress is made it is because many people have contributed."

Jacqui Smith, 34, was elected to represent Redditch in the West Midlands, but not until 4am on the morning of May 2. "The last half hour was the longest of my life," she says. "Rationally, I knew I must have won, but at the back of my mind was this feeling that I might be the only one not to have done."

Ms Smith had already left her post as head of economics and GNVQ studies at Haybridge High School, in order to give the campaign her best shot. Life as an MP, she thinks, may be lonely. "I will miss the comradeship of the staffroom and the contact with young people. People said 'Oh, you're going to have to work very hard and very long hours'. I said that I do that anyway because I'm a teacher. The difference is that as an MP you get far more help."

The #163;43,000 salary represents a considerable pay rise for her, as for most of the other former teachers. But with the fees office not yet paying salaries, and not having had a pay cheque since leaving school at the end of the Easter term, Jacqui Smith hasn't been able to splash out on new suits or shoes. "The credit cards are red hot," she says, cheerfully.

She says power will not go to her head. "It's very exciting up here, but I have to keep my feet on the ground. The people of Redditch elected me as a mum, and as someone who knows what's going on in the community. Redditch is actually my home, and if I don't need to be here I'll be in the constituency."

On the day The TES spoke to her, Jacqui Smith had travelled down on the train with Estelle Morris. Which aspect of education policy did they discuss? "We talked about the things that all MPs talk about in these circumstances, " she says. "Have you got an office yet? What do you do for computer equipment? Have you got any staff?"

A teaching background does not guarantee education as a political priority. So it may gladden the hearts of Derbyshire teachers to know that Tom Levitt, a former teacher who now represents High Peak, devoted his maiden speech to education. The House heard him cite a Buxton reception class containing 46 children, another primary which faces the imminent loss of one of its five teachers, and the "700 pit props holding up roofs in Derbyshire schools", in a speech whose content ranged from the shortcomings of the voucher scheme to the calamitous state of further education.

But other teacher MPs have different priorities. Gisela Stuart, former law lecturer and now representing Edgbaston, will concentrate on pensions - the subject of her unfinished PhD thesis at Birmingham University. Dr Brian Iddon, formerly reader in organic chemistry at Salford University and now Labour member for Bolton South East, is particularly interested in housing. Vernon Coaker MP asks not to be pigeon-holed as an education specialist, despite a particular concern with ways of engaging children who under-achieve.

Dr Iddon says he is still an educationist. "I'm seeing PhD students on Fridays, and writing up their research. My interest in science will continue." He has already joined parliamentary groups on scientific matters and will be giving a long-planned talk on the "Magic of Chemistry" at the Science Museum in November. "I'm a great believer in carrying science to the people," says the MP. How does he regard his new job? "I've a feeling of great privilege to be sent down here to try to solve problems.I'm still a public servant, and always have been. The biggest satisfaction is helping people who cannot see through the thicket of bureaucracy."

Their first utterance in the chamber is a major rite of passage for new MPs. One of the conventions of the maiden speech is that it should contain an encomium to the MP's predecessor. This may pose a particular challenge to Melanie Johnson MP, who was infamously insulted by the outgoing Tory, David Evans, during the campaign. Ms Johnson was Labour's education spokesperson in Cambridgeshire, and a lay inspector for Ofsted for more than three years. Mr Evans described her as a "girl with three bastard children" and refused to repent in the ensuing media storm.

Like some of the other newcomers, Melanie Johnson is critical of Westminster bureaucracy and secretiveness. "There's no really simple information provided for new members," she says. "I think it's a very antiquated idea that you have to find out what to do from the old hands. Years ago they probably spent a lot of time in the bars and mooching about talking to each other. I've yet to go into a bar, and I doubt if I will this side of the summer. A lot of us have worked in organisations that are very effectively run, and the contrast is quite marked. I think some changes are needed."

The exhilaration among the new MPs is still there for all to see. David Lepper, featured in The TES just before the election and now MP for Brighton Pavilion, speaks of his "great joy" at being part of a process of change. "Actually hearing the Queen saying those things that had been part of our manifesto was a great thrill," he says.

Anne Begg found it surreal to go to drinks at 11 Downing Street. "I felt, this can't really be happening," she says. "Everybody I know, I think about them as ordinary people. What are they doing running the country?"

"I think it'll take five years to come down from the high, " says Jacqui Smith.

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