Footballing scholar plays left of centre

26th May 2000 at 01:00
What does a man who has done everything do next? Tell the Government how to fix education, of course. By Biddy Passmore

THE independent school heads did not know what to expect.

They were to hear a young man called Phil Collins (wasn't he some kind of pop star?) talk about "Scenarios for New Labour's policy on the independent sector, 2000-2005."

Mr Collins had just taken over from the expected speaker, Katharine Raymond, as director of the Social Market Foundation, the think-tank of the radical centre. He had been in the post for one day. There he stood - slim, smiling and curly-haired. Whatever would he be able to tell them?

Three-quarters of an hour later, they were applauding loudly. Mr Collins had charmed and impressed them, and not just because his message was one they wanted to hear. Here was someone who could think logically, talked in proper sentences and seemed to have an inside track to the heart of New Labour thinking.

His speech was like an entertaining tutorial, which concluded by highlighting the likelihood of a bigger role for the independent sector under the next Labour Government.

Phil Collins has packed so much into his 33 years that it makes you feel tired. Television researcher, university teacher, stockbroker, research assistant to Frank Field MP, journalist, writer and performer of plays, consultant to the Money Zone at the Millennium Dome - oh, and captain of the Cambridge University football team. He has even written a novel.

"I've never really worked out what it is I'm most interested in, so I've always done everything," he says."I've always thought: I'll turn up and grin and get a new job."

Last year, he turned up and grinned at Lord (Robert) Skidelsky, chairman of the Social Market Foundation. He needed a base for a research project called The Open Society, to flesh out the idea that the Left should embrace liberty as a guiding principle and withdraw from the state provision of public services. Skidelsky obliged by making Mr Collins a senior research fellow of the foundation.

Now, catapulted into the directorship after the departure of Katharine Raymond, he wants to pursue the same broad interest.

"I want to look at how the great big institutional bureaucracies can be broken down," he says. "I want to see more diversity of provision in health, education and welfare."

He supports academic selection and thinks one of the priorities of public policy should be "to remove the impediments to clever kids going to the best schools".

The eldest child of two teachers, he won a scholarship from his church primary to Bury Grammar, newly independent after the withdrawal of the direct grant. Despite the distractions of girls and football, he acquired 12 O-levels. The school was not confident enough about him to put him in for Oxbridge. By the time he gt his four As at A-level, he was bound for a history course at Birmingham University.

He had a place to study for a doctorate at Oxford but opted for a part-time masters degree at Birkbeck, London, living on the dole while his girlfriend taught in north London. Then his tutor, Ben Pimlott, said he knew a producer at London Weekend Television, who needed a researcher.

He took the job but disliked asking people to distil their life's work in two minutes. More congenial were the two years, from 1989, he spent as research assistant to Frank Field MP, who was chair of the select committee on health and social services.

Phil Collins got to know future movers and shakers like David Miliband, now head of the policy unit at Number 10, and joined the Labour party - a heresy for this product of working-class, milltown Tories.

He had been bitten by the political bug, but still thought he would become an academic. He won a PhD place to study Utopias at St John's, Cambridge, filling in time directing a research project on vocational training at the Institute of Education in London. Then he hit Cambridge and discovered its playground aspect. There was football, the Footlights and plays he took to the Edinburgh Festival.

Much as he loved teaching politics and sociology, he began to think he might not be cut out for the monastic aspects of academic research.

Browsing through some of his students' prospectuses for investment banks, he felt both "a sub-Marxian yuck" and the itch to try something new.

He joined Flemings bank as an investment strategist. Two years later, after the 1997 election victory for Labour, he was poached by stockbrokers' firm HSBCJames Capel, then by Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, to become head of the research department ranked number one in the City.

By the time he had, inevitably, got bored, he had earned enough to buy two houses, one in North London and one on the edge of the moors in Rochdale, and to give himself a six-month breathing space while he considered what to do next. Now he is building up the Social Market Foundation again after a period when it has fallen a little out of the public eye. He plans lunches, seminars and lectures. He is busy raising money and recruiting.

The foundation, set up in the 1980s by social democrats to bring a market orientation to social policy, could now become the engine room of New Labour's "third way".

Phil Collins' contacts with Number 10 are "informal but very good" and include playing for the Downing Street football team. He has submitted a paper to the Policy Unit and contributed to speeches.

What change does he think would make the biggest difference to education? He recommends "hugely increased salaries for teachers", allowing them to earn up to pound;65-70,000.

How receptive would Downing Street be to that?

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