Councillor steals the local limelight

12th May 2006 at 01:00
His wife may be Chris Keates, but Les Lawrence now has his own key role in education. William Stewart reports

Les Lawrence is nothing if not polite.

Newly installed as the country's top education councillor, the 59-year-old is understandably keen to talk policy. Instead he is patiently fielding questions about his wife.

Why? Because she is none other than Chris Keates, the no-nonsense general secretary of the NASUWT, the country's second largest teaching union.

Their relationship attracted its fair share of publicity when it began in 1988. Not only were both already married, but Mr Lawrence was a Tory councillor and Ms Keates an executive member of a TUC-affiliated union.

Now Mr Lawrence's position as chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people's board means the Birmingham-based couple are both major figures on the national education stage for the first time. So will they be discussing schools policy over the cornflakes?

"That is the last thing we do. Chris has her job and I have mine.

"We see home as a sanctuary. It is a wonderful place to come back to where you know you can put everything else aside.

"The fact that I am incredibly proud of Chris and with the work she does I think should always be taken as read." After a pause, he adds: "Which doesn't mean to say I agree with her on everything!"

His wife may have the higher profile, but Mr Lawrence has years of education experience in his own right. A software engineer in his day job, he joined the Conservatives' national advisory body on education in the mid 1970s.

"Education is the one service above all others that forms the basis of a young person's view of society," he says, explaining his interest in the subject.

And with Toby, his 14-year-old son, still a pupil at a Birmingham secondary, he has a more direct link. "It always helps to have a child within the system because it keeps your feet firmly on the ground," he said.

Mr Lawrence began his political career at the age of 27, winning a seat on Litchfield district council. In 1982 he was elected to Birmingham city council and, apart from a three-year break following defeat in 1995, has represented the same ward ever since.

Most of that time was spent as the Conservative opposition's education spokesman until 2003 when he became chair of the authority's education scrutiny committee.

Then two years ago when a Conservative Lib-Dem coalition won power, he became the cabinet member for lifelong learning where he has been overseeing the transition to a children's services department.

There was a brief flirtation with parliamentary politics in the 1983 general election when he stood in Newcastle-under-Lyme and lost by 1,800 votes. He jokes that it was difficult to know which was greater, the Labour MP's fear of losing, or his own worries about winning. Mr Lawrence says he has not been tempted to repeat the experience. "I am a great believer in staying and working in local government because I often think you can get more done effectively on a day-to-day basis as a senior local politician than as a backbench MP."

His biggest ambition in his new LGA position is for central government to recognise the importance of local councils in delivering education and remove some of the targets they are bound by.

What some may find surprising, in view of all the pre-education white paper spin about removing schools from town hall control, is that he believes the Government's Bill is moving in the right direction. It is a far cry from the Tories' Free Schools policy of virtually abolishing local education authorities, that Mr Lawrence, a self-confessed "wet", helped persuade his own party to drop after the 2001 election.

Today he describes any remaining differences between central and local government Tories over the role of councils in education as "subtleties".


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