Don't be scared, says 'bruiser' Clarke

1st November 2002 at 00:00
In his first interview as Education Secretary, Labour 'tough guy'

Charles Clarke tells Warwick Mansell that he wants to be friends with teachers and get in touch with his feminine side.

CHARLES Clarke has been billed as a big-hitting "bruiser" sent in to sort out education policy after the turmoil of recent months.

But the burly Education Secretary insists teachers have nothing to fear from him. The softly-spoken Mr Clarke used his first interview since taking office to go on a charm offensive . The fact that he chose to speak to The TES first indicates the importance he places on a dialogue with the profession.

He was, he reveals, once a teacher. In his 20s he lectured in maths part-time at the City Lit on a scheme to encourage young people who had left school at 16 to go to university. "It was one of the most inspirational things I have ever done."

All four of his grandparents were teachers and he respects teachers as being among "leaders of society", key to the nation's future.

But already, after just six days in the job Mr Clarke appears unafraid to speak his mind, even sympathising with those who criticise the pace of Labour's reforms.

He reveals he is "intellectually attracted" to a baccalaureate-type exam system but recognises any change would need to be "carefully considered", especially after the changes of the recent years.

"The point that has been represented to me, and I understand the point, is that the pace of change has been too rapid in education, and I take that pretty seriously."

He concedes some initiatives were "not as well-conceived as they might have been".

Charles Clarke, 52, is doing his second stint in education. He came to the department as a junior minister in 1998. An insider remembers him as "a perfectly competent junior minister" who was clearly ambitious. He developed good contacts with the press. While most junior ministers are content to meet education correspondents and TES reporters, he lunched national newspaper editors.

In 1999 he moved to the Home Office and then in July 2001 he was made party chairman. He endured a difficult year as chairman but his reputation as a blunt speaker was enhanced though he was accused of briefing against established figures such as former party general secretary Margaret McDonagh.

He may be given to speaking off the cuff in a gaffe-prone way, but he can talk himself out of trouble and has already proved himself equal to Jeremy Paxman. Colleagues pay tribute to his intellect.

His two sons, aged 12 and 15, are both at a Norwich comprehensive. His great love outside of politics is Norwich City FC, where he is a season ticket holder.

Unlike Ms Morris, who once said she had not found time to finish a book in three years, he reads about one a week, his last being Sebastian Faulks' On Green Dolphin Street. The other books on his bedside table are The Natural: the misunderstood presidency of Bill Clinton by Joe Klein and All Politics is Local by Tip O'Neil, former speaker of the US House of Representatives.

As for that epithet: "I do not particularly like or even recognise the description of myself as a 'bruiser'. I tend to say what I think quite directly and people aren't always used to that."

Then he adds, with a twinkle: "Perhaps I do it in an over-harsh way, in which case I need to be self-critical ... perhaps show my feminine side."

The TES has yet to see a feminine side to Charles Clarke, and suggests the rest of the world should not hold its breath.

BRIEF HISTORY

Charles Rodway Clarke, 52, born in London to Sir Richard ("Otto") Clarke KCB, former permanent secretary at the ministry of technology, and his psychologist wife, Brenda.

Privately educated at Highgate School. Read maths and economics at Cambridge 1969-73.

NUS president 1975-77 then worked for Hackney People in Partnership 1978-80. While lecturing part-time in maths at the City Literary Institute from 1981-83, he was a researcher for Neil Kinnock, then Labour education spokesman. After Kinnock became party leader he was his chief of staff, 1983-92 After Labour's election defeat, Clarke was chief executive of public affairs consultancy QPA,1992-97. He was elected MP for Norwich South in 1997.

In 1983 he married Carol Marika, a half-Estonian researcher. They have two sons: Christopher, born in 1987, and Matthew in 1990. Clarke is known as an elusive, chess-playing, "matey beer drinker", who enjoys walking.

CHARLES'S CHALLENGES

* Restoring faith in A-levels.

* Deciding whether to introduce higher education top-up fees, charging students up to pound;15,000 a year to attend elite universities.

* Improving secondary schools, by the next general election.

* Union opposition to salary rises being pegged at or near inflation and harder-to-obtain performance pay.

* A one-day strike by teachers on November 26 over Government rejection of major rises in the London cost-of-living allowances.

* A one-day strike by further education lecturers next week over pay.

The targets for 2004 that he will be measured against:

* 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach level 4 in English (75 per cent in 2002).

* 85 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach level 4 in maths (73 per cent in 2002).

* Truancy to fall to 0.63 per cent of half-day sessions missed (0.7 per cent in 2002).

* 55 per cent of 16-year-olds to get at least five A* to C grades at GCSE (51 per cent in 2002).l 92 per cent of 16-year-olds to to get at least A* to G grades at GCSE, including English and maths (86.8 per cent in 2002).

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