Defender of the faith schools

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Devout Christian Stephen Timms may be the ideal man to lead the drive for more church schools, but he's not forcing the issue. Warwick Mansell reports

STEPHEN Timms, school standards minister, is a committed Christian who admits his faith colours everything he does.

The 46-year-old has been a Christian since his mid-teens and is a former vice-chair of the Christian Socialist Movement. He says of his religion:

"It influences everything that I do, as you would expect. Everybody's individual convictions and values have influence on the way they live and on their jobs."

Mr Timms attends his local independent Baptist church, the Plaistow Christian Fellowship. The Rev Quintin Peppiatt, vicar of St Mary Magdalene church in East Ham, and deputy chair of education at Newham council, holds ward surgeries with Mr Timms, who is MP for Newham North East, every month.

He says: "I think Stephen would describe himself as an evangelical Christian, but he's very inclusive in terms of his Christianity. He has preached in our church and is a good preacher. He often talks about how his faith feeds into and supports his politics."

As schools minister, Mr Timms will oversee the Government's planned expansion of the number of state-funded faith schools. His obvious personal belief will further alarm sceptics who already think the proposals will create racial and sectarian division.

He says his views on the expansion of religious education chime with those of the rest of the Government. "I don't want to force faith schools on anyone," he insists. "Faith schools should only be established when there is demand in a local community for one."

The minister has had a difficult baptism as school standards minister. From a quieter life as financial secretary to the Treasury, the former leader of Newham council was thrust into the spotlight at education - and soon found himself at the centre of the furore over the teacher shortage.

Asked, in a radio interview, about the depths of the shortfall, he replied:

"The indications that I'm seeing are that we should have, I think, the teachers that we need by September."

The response, from those who had read reports of headteachers trawling the globe in a desperate search for staff, was one of disbelief. He was widely accused of complacency. One newspaper launched into a more personal attack, comparing the unfortunate minister to TV favourite Herman Munster.

He says: "My Mum thought it was quite a good likeness." But he adds: "I do not think it contributed very much to the assessment of the issues ... I regret that I was misunderstood but I think it was right to counter the sense of alarm there was at the time.

"It was never my intention to suggest that we have recruited all the teachers we need. Recruiting teachers and keeping them in the profession is a clear priority."

Graham Lane, education chairman at Newham council, east London, says part of the problem was Mr Timms's honesty.

He says: "I can see why he gets in trouble with journalists. I used to say to him, watch what you're saying. Don't be afraid if the answer you give isn't exactly what's asked. But no, he just says what he thinks. He's a very honest guy."

A pupil at Farnborough grammar school, he won a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge before going into business as a telecommunications consultant.

Elected to Newham borough council in 1984, he became leader in 1990 before entering Parliament at a by-election in 1994.

He is married to Hui-Leng Lim, a Singapore-Chinese homeless project worker. He was a key figure in a campaign in the early 90s to stop people moving out of the borough, and still lives locally in East Ham.

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