Ideas man changes direction

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Will Hutton, one-time stockbrker and journalist and now chief executive of the Industrial Society, tells Biddy Passmore that sparkling creativity can only happen with the investment of big money in schools

IT IS Day Two with a vengeance. The second day of the second month of the second millennium. And Will Hutton's second day as chief executive of the Industrial Society, the UK's leading force for making people happier and better trained at work.

Mr Hutton, sometime stockbroker, Newsnight and Guardian journalist and editor of the Observer, is changing tack. So is the 82-year-old Industrial Society, in ways that chime happily with the strengths and interests of its new chief executive.

He loves ideas and is more than happy to talk and write about them. The society, having started life to improve conditions in factories and since established a solid reputation as consultants and trainers, now wants to develop and campaign for ideas about change in the workplace.

Mr Hutton arrives - tall, friendly, breathless and late. It has taken longer than he had reckoned to drive from Wilton Park, the conference centre in Sussex where he has been sharing his thoughts on employment with the Treasury's great and good.

He has been counted among the great and good gurus himself ever since he published, in 1995, The State We're In. This best-selling book brought to public attention the concept of the "stakeholder" and is considered seminal to New Labour thinking.

It has sold more than 200,000 copies in hardback and paperback - an astonishing figure for a book with a lot of economic

theory - and received more attention than any book on

political economy since the

Beveridge Report in 1942.

According to commentator Peter Kellner, it coincided with the need for new thinking on the left to reflect the end of the old planning-versus-markets debate, to find a politics that would "harness the dynamism of market forces to the public interest and the need for social justice".

Will Hutton comes to the Industrial Society after what he describes as a "fantastic four years" at the Observer - although the first two, as editor, are widely acknowledged to have been a pretty tough struggle followed by a more serene two years as editor-in-chief.

He is attracted by the idea of joining "a thinking organisation", but stresses that the society has no intention of playing down the training and consultancy work that provide its bread and butter. He is nervous of having it described as a "think tank", which suggests a politically-linked body handing over perfectly-formed ideas for the next government.

"We're trying to road-test practical ideas with firm intellectual roots so we can say to companies, trade unions, women, ethnic minorities, government: here is something that can be tangibly done," he says.

Among the dozen or so issues that will be preoccupying him - including power at work, how people are paid, worklife balance - the school curriculum is sure to feature. In The State We're In, he wrote of the 30 per cent underclass in Britain - the unskilled and virtually unemployable base of a 303040 society.

He has read the "devastating" numbers in Sir Claus Moser's report on literacy and numeracy among the adult population. In Hutton-speak, he wants to "insert the preoccupation with basic skills into the national conversation", and is especially concerned with what happens in primary schools.

But he also shares the worry of a growing number of teachers that the national curriculum, while ensuring a baseline of minimum standard, has left too little time for "the sparking up of interest". And if interest is not sparked at school, how are people to act creatively at work?

"I'm not sure we've addressed as a nation where intelligence and creativity come from," he says. He has just started reading American educationist Howard Gardner to find out.

He feels strongly that making an impact on education means spending money - big money - and will be turning to this theme tomorrow, when he debates "Education and Work" with Mary Warnock and the people of Winchester at a discussion organised as part of the city's millennium project.

"The notion that large classes and poorly paid teachers, in crumbling schools with very few textbooks, can do good work is just silly," he says.

He has repeatedly voiced concern about the burgeoning private sector of education in Britain which "undermines the sense that we are common citizens of a common country".

While he recognises that the best schools are "fantastic academic establishments" and that some are "brilliant at sorting out difficult children," he feels they must be opened up socially.

He would vastly expand the now-defunct assisted-places scheme, from the "token" 30,000 places provided by the Tories to, say, 250,000, so that it accounted for half the intake of independent schools.

But that is just one part of the Hutton Plan for Taking on the Private Sector. The other involves beefing up the state sector, making primary education "outstandingly good" (and irrestible to middle-class parents) by reducing average class sizes to under 20 and building and adapting schools. That might cost about pound;2-2.5 billion extra a year, he reckons, equivalent to about 1p on the standard rate of tax.

Then he'd get going on fifth and sixth-form colleges, with selective entry at 14. If they were resourced properly, he thinks, they'd be immensely attractive to parents and children. "Where would teenagers rather be? In a single-sex private school or a funky, co-ed sixth-form college?"

All this, and middle schools, would add up to an extra pound;6-7bn a year. But he dismisses the cost with "Come on, it's only 0.75 per cent of GDP".

Hutton, the son of a senior official in the Ministry of Defence, went to Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School for Boys, which he recalls as a "very meritocratic environment", where the head was determined his pupils should do as well as any public school boys. He missed getting a place to read history at Cambridge and read economics and sociology at Bristol instead.

His subsequent six years with stockbrokers Phillips and Drew were, he explains, the result of wanting "a job in central London that allowed me to pay the rent - and actually I rather enjoyed it and I was quite good at it".

But he became "desperate" and went off to INSEAD, the business school in France, where a professor suggested he might be suited to journalism. He became a senior producer of current affairs on Radio 4, then moved to television.

Now 49, he lives in north London's Muswell Hill with his wife Jane, who runs a company which raises finance for social housing, and their three children. The two of secondary age are at state schools, the elder at Latymer, a mixed grammar, the younger at Fortismere, a "very good comprehensive". They are unique among their friends in using the state sector, he says sadly. Will Hutton, one-time stockbroker and journalist and now new chief executive of the Industrial Society, tells Biddy Passmore that sparking creativity can only happen with the investment of big money in schools

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