Interview - 'So what?' The teacher's politician who makes a point of bluntness

24th July 2009 at 01:00
'My view of education comes from my own teaching experience,' says schools minister - and former deputy head - Vernon Coaker. But will that help him to sell the licence to teach and report cards to the profession? Richard Vaughan went to meet him

The breakfast meeting with new schools minister Vernon Coaker is spent over the "bacon cobs" - sandwiches to the masses - he requested. "None of these mini pastries," he said. "They're tiny."

Coming into his second month in the job, Mr Coaker is already at home in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and his staff seem equally at ease.

The fact that he is an ex-teacher is his major selling point to the profession. The former deputy head has two decades' experience and is perhaps better placed than any of his ministerial peers to understand the issues that teachers and schools face.

Before the interview begins, he wishes all school staff an enjoyable summer break: "I recognise how hard people have worked and I hope they enjoy their time off."

He is a "teacher's politician", he says, and has not been short of advice. Not only are many of his friends teachers but so too is his wife, and his daughter is about to start her first teaching job. All, including him, are NUT members.

Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, joked last week that Mr Coaker was keen to push through the 2.3 per cent pay deal for teachers because "he couldn't stand to have his wife at home on yet another strike".

One can imagine the difficulties possible in a home where a teacher lives with the schools minister, but Mr Coaker says it is helpful. "There are no tensions. What it does is keep your feet on the ground. Here we are in a lovely office in a nice building in London and when we discuss important things in here and decisions are made. What I hope is that my family will ensure it is rooted in reality.

"The important thing for us (ministers) when we're making decisions is what difference does this make? How does it help teachers teach, pupils learn and schools improve?"

Despite his classroom experience, the MP for Gedling in Nottinghamshire has a big task ahead to step out of the shadow of his predecessor and make the job his own. Jim Knight was well liked, not just in the inner circles of the department but by teachers, and many were disappointed when he left for the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mr Coaker may perhaps not have the same oratorical skills as former thespian Mr Knight or be as light on his feet politically. But his charm lies in his directness. One of his favourite questions at meetings is, apparently, a blunt "So what?"

As well as being straight-talking, he is also often genuinely funny - a rarity among politicians. Originally from London, he carries himself like a CID detective (his father was a police officer).

Given his teaching background, it seems strange that Mr Coaker was not moved into his current role sooner, particularly as Labour looks to be on its way out of office. But he has the job now, he says, and it is up to him to ensure he keeps it until and beyond the next general election.

One of his first tasks was to launch the 21st Century Schools white paper. This was a consolidation of policies, the department said; it was not trying to "reinvent the wheel" but to provide a solid foundation on which to campaign.

All was as expected, except for one rabbit that came out of the hat in the shape of the licence to teach. The controversial piece of policy requiring teachers to face checks every five years was surely not an easy one to "sell" to friends and family.

"If people see it as another bureaucratic burden then obviously they will think 'oh dear'," Mr Coaker said. "But if we explain what it is that we're trying to do, and when people engage with that, they will start to see that, actually, this is a positive development and a really positive step forward.

"Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done on the detail of it and on how it is actually implemented. But I think it will help teachers' status in the eyes of the public.

"It's about giving teachers entitlements to things that they have not always had, and if we could get more consistency to continuous professional development then that can only be a good thing."

Allowing teachers to teach and pupils to learn is his "mantra", he says, and one of his main priorities in office is promoting the "esteem" of the teaching profession.

The Conservatives announced two weeks ago that they would raise exam entry levels for trainees in an attempt to bring England into line with countries that top the tables in educational achievement. But this is little more than hot air, said Mr Coaker.

"We've got the best-qualified teaching profession that we've ever had," he said. "We have large numbers of people applying and I think alongside the grades people will look at the academic qualifications, and personal qualities and those judgments are for teacher training providers to look at.

"We need to continue to praise the work that our teachers do and, in terms of raising the status of teachers, part of it has to be the Government praising them and setting out a clear lead, which is what we do."

He denies that his proximity to teachers and his role as schools minister is a source of conflict. However, there were red faces when it emerged that he is a member of the anti-academies Socialist Education Alliance.

But Mr Coaker brushes this aside. "I've always supported academies. My view of education comes from my own teaching experience," he said. "I've always believed in proper codes of conduct, tough but fair enforcement of the rules, uniform policies - those sort of things are important - and that there is attainment at every level. The school ethos and the leadership are fundamental to that."

The idea that academies are starting to "stagnate" under the current administration is also batted back. In recent weeks, both the Tories and academy heads have claimed that as long as Gordon Brown is Prime Minister and Ed Balls is Schools Secretary the academy programme will continue to founder.

"The academy programme is a fundamental part of the Government's school improvement programme," Mr Coaker said. "It will remain so and we will continue to push forward. There are other actions we are taking in regards to school improvement - National Challenge, for instance."

Another major reform is the introduction of report cards, which the minister will be expected to help navigate, despite unrest over the use of a single grade to define a school's performance. The logic behind this is to provide a broader picture than exam results alone can offer.

Mr Coaker enthuses that report cards will offer parents a "more rounded" assessment of the school, taking into account more than pupil attainment alone. He disagrees that there is any hint of a contradiction in boiling all aspects of the school down to a single grade.

"What we have said is that we're convinced that there should be an overall grade, but obviously we'll listen to what people have to say and see how it works during the two-year pilot," he said.

Despite his straightforward manner, Mr Coaker is not adverse to using the politician's ploy of avoiding the question. When asked his least favourite job during his time as a teacher, he tells me what he enjoyed most.

"There were many people who were better subject teachers, but I had this desire to help kids who were more difficult," he said.

"The really tough thing is you have to try to prevent young people from being excluded from school because that causes immense problems," he added.

"Sometimes you have to. Let's be clear about it: they can't be allowed to impact on the educational entitlement of the majority. It's not fair. So I used to spend my time helping those few and also protecting the educational right of the majority."

Asked whether he would become a teacher today, he answers in a blink. "Well, hopefully I won't have to make that decision, but I would be perfectly happy to go back."

Mr Coaker may not be forced to return to the classroom, but unless he can help to turn around his party's fortunes the schools minister may well have to make a career decision in less than 12 months' time.


1953: Born in London

1964: Drayton Manor Grammar School, London

1971: Warwick University (BA); Trent Polytechnic (PGCE)

1977: Teacher, becoming deputy head at Big Wood School, Nottingham

1997: Elected MP for Gedling, Nottinghamshire

1999: Parliamentary private secretary to Tessa Jowell, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and later Estelle Morris, Department for Education

2003: Assistant government whip

2005: Government whip

2008: Minister of state, Home Office

2009: Minister of state, Department for Children, Schools and Families.

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