Ex-head takes Lib-Dem helm

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
PHIL WILLIS, a former headteacher and MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, has been given the top job in education for the Liberal Democrats.

Previously junior partner to Don Foster, who has moved to the environment and transport portfolio, Mr Willis will head the education and employment brief with his own team: Jackie Ballard, one of the challengers in the recent Lib Dem leadership contest, and Evan Harris, a doctor and the party's former health spokesman.

Mr Willis, who admits he is excited by the new job, says he will not be pursuing his predecessor's plans for neighbourhood trusts running schools. The idea was defeated at conference a year ago, with Ms Ballard being one of the major opponents. "Conference signalled the end of that policy, but we will still be looking at radical ways to engage local communities in their schools," he said. "I feel there is a strategic role for local authorities to play, but it has got to be revised. We cannot continue to simply reinvent a 19th-century model."

He will challenge the forthcoming legislation on post-16 education. "We have to engage with a 14-19 curriculum and examine how the school and further education systems work together."

It was during the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act, that the good-humoured Mr Willis revealed he once had to prove his ability to wield a cane in order to get a job as a teacher. The head put on a cricket glove and invited him to demonstrate his technique.

"He then asked me to put on the glove and proceeded to show me how it was done. I have never forgotten being caned by the headmaster for doing nothing - just applying for the job," he said.

Under the tenure of Don Foster, the Lib Dems education profile has greatly increased - and since the election his party has been seen as the most effective and intelligent opposition to the Government's policies.

However, it is no secret that Mr Willis and Mr Foster did not always agree. They were dubbed Pinky and Perky by mischievous opponents. And Mr Willis will relish taking charge of the brief.

Jackie Ballard, who criticised the new Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy for not promoting many women to his frontbench team, will take the lead on child care and pre-school education.

Dr Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, will cover higher education and Ms Ballard's former responsibility for women's issues. "Many of the problems facing women are due to men, so there is merit in a man speaking on the subject," he said.

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