Giving us what is good for us

13th November 1998 at 00:00
Janette Wolf finds BBC Education's new head of policy sitting comfortably with the old Reithian tradition.

The chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland, recently declared an admirable policy of corporate team bonding. He said that whenever he goes out visiting BBC regional outposts, he makes a point of having breakfast with people under the age of 35: "I wouldn't meet them otherwise and a remarkable and stimulating lot they are".

This will no doubt come as a heartwarming endorsement for Josh Hillman (30), who has just joined BBC Education as head of policy, at a time when the corporation has gambled, if not quite all the family silver, certainly a teaset or two, on on-line and digital services.

Hillman has taken something of a gamble himself with an extraordinary career switch that has seen him leave the heady, can-do enterprise of the Institute of Public Policy Research, where he was making and shaping Labour education policy, for one of the nation's great institutions. But former colleagues like Peter Mortimore are unsurprised by the move: "If you look at what he was doing at the IPPR and before that at the National Commission on Education, it is quite a logical continuation," he says.

What Hillman had been doing in both was impressing the great and good with the perspicuity of his research. Margaret Maden, a co-editor on one of his early publications, Success Against The Odds, remembers that "he was stunningly patient and indefatigable about getting things better. That drive for quality made him outstanding in terms of research."

After a degree in PPE from Oxford and an MA in politics and public administration, Hillman had, unsurprisingly perhaps, flirted with the idea of settling down in an academic milieu. "I did think about a PhD but I thought 'I can't be bothered'. I've seen too many people spend years doing it." Instead he combined a thirst for more immediate action with the academic rigour that was required at the left-leaning IPPR. The opportunity to put education policy into practice was particularly seductive.

"You got the best of both worlds," he says. "You're on the fringe of the academic world but you are also involved in politics and policy-making. " Although he denies having any political ambitions himself, he found it exciting. "Especially in the run-up to the general election. Not because of the glamour but it was obvious that the work we were doing was going to have an impact."

It was his work on the University for Industry which was most significant in this respect. Gordon Brown had suggested a university which could do for vocational training what the Open University had done for higher education, in a speech in 1994.

It devolved to Hillman and colleagues at the IPPR to flesh the then shadow chancellor's idea out with a blueprint and then set up a pilot project to see if it would work.

"The result was absolutely extraordinary," he says with pride. "We set ourselves what I had thought was an over-ambitious target of 5,000 registrations within a nine-month period and we beat that within seven months."

He has transferred this commitment to improving access for the socially disadvantaged and those disenchanted by their educational experiences to his new role. Hillman regards the BBC's digital and interactive services as a vital means of rescuing those on the outer limits.

It is his firm belief that because of this, the BBC can be at the cutting edge of social change. It enables him to say with conviction that he is in for the long haul.

Animated and passionate about the prospects for progress, he is disinclined to discuss any personal details, apart from admitting to hill-walking in his spare time ("But not with Chris Woodhead," he adds hastily.) He likes "reading, cinema, music - all the usual stuff" and although he works hard, he says he has no problem switching off at weekends. He sweeps around London on an ageing Vespa which, according to a friend, he gets knocked off periodically. This is mildly ironic considering that his father, Dr Meyer Hillman, a transport specialist at the Policy Studies Institute, has campaigned for years to get more children out on the roads on their bicycles.

This reforming zeal has undoubtedly passed down from father to son. Josh Hillman admits that he has some "strong ideas" about the direction BBC Education will take in the next five years. "I think people's desire for edification is not well-served by the formal education system. I think the BBC has a major role in broadening people's experience. There has been a tendency to treat people with kid gloves. I think a more aggressive approach is much more effective."

Josh Hillman has already set out his stall and in this respect he will be continuing that distinguished Reithian tradition of giving us what is good for us, on our screens and beyond.

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