Jiminy Cricket in a denim jacket;People;Profile;Don Foster

1st May 1998 at 01:00
After years of building credibility within the teaching profession, the Liberal Democrats' Don Foster feels his moment in Opposition has arrived. Frances Rafferty reports.

It should have been Don Foster's moment of glory. Education history in the making . . . but then the Tories spoilt it.

After five years' slogging on the Liberal Democrat benches arguing into oblivion hundreds upon hundreds of amendments to more than a dozen pieces of Government legislation, Mr Foster was getting his very own words - a new clause to end corporal punishment in private schools - onto the statute book.

But it was 6 o'clock in the morning. The correspondent from the Bath Chronicle was tucked up in bed and the story had missed that day's papers. Stephen Dorrell and his rotten chums in the Conservative Party had decided to talk the School Standards and Framework Bill through the night.

It did not take Mr Foster too long to bounce back. His amazing energy and Tiggerish enthusiasm soon had him back on his feet in full, booming-voiced form.

The MP for Bath, who memorably ousted Chris Patten in 1992, has never been busier than in this last year. For he has become, if not the official, the effective Opposition in education. The unions, education pressure groups, charities and teachers are beating a path to his door and postbag.

"I have a five-page letter here," he said, "from a teacher who wants to share her personal thoughts about the literacy hour.

"I spent the last Parliament building up credibility within the profession. I had to battle to be included in the major education events, such as the North of England conference, but now I am a fixture."

At one stage he was making so many speeches, all with the same jokes, that his researcher gave the story to a newspaper diarist and he was forced to come up with a new set of gags.

And his reward after the election from his leader Paddy Ashdown for putting Liberal Democrat education policy firmly on the map? Another stint at education.

The lack of promotion must have come as a blow. Mr Foster says diplomatically: "I'm privileged to deal with an issue I care about passionately and I am able to use my experience in. So far the Tory opposition has been weak and organisations are saying they want to work with us."

Educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and Keele University, Don Foster has been a science teacher (at the independent Sevenoaks School), curriculum developer (Avon LEA), teacher trainer (Bristol University) and education consultant.

For most of the 1980s he was an Avon county councillor, becoming leader of the Liberal group and chairman of the education committee (1987-89). And he is the author of a number of educational books, including Science with Gas (a title that may not surprise his fellow MPs on committee).

He is playing a major role in the party's policy review and says the assumptions underlying traditional Liberal Democrat thought are to be challenged. He is developing a radical approach to early years - starting from the age of 0 - and will be taking his concept of the "light-touch local authority" further.

Mr Foster must be one of the hardest-working MPs. He sits on the education and employment select committee and has been debating both Labour's education Bills. He puts down rafts of parliamentary questions and his constituency diary hardly has a moment free. Fortunately, he has a keen and cheerful office to help.

"He's the most demanding person I've ever worked for," says a colleague. "The thing about Don is although his ego is so huge it's more than matched by his work rate, so you can forgive him."

Since May help has also been on hand, with MPs Phil Willis and Paul Keetch joining the education team - although it has to be said tensions are sometimes evident between them.

He said: "The bad side is that I can no longer invent party policy on the hoof. It does require a degree of consultation and inevitably far more meetings but I can draw on their skill and experience and we toss ideas around."

Where he supports what the Government is doing, he is happy to congratulate. When he thinks it is backsliding, he is quick to act as a Jiminy Cricket character - chirping up as Labour's conscience when Pinocchio's nose starts to grow, just as Jiminy's did.

"I am frankly appalled at what they have done on the issue of selection. I think it is a major betrayal of the things I believe the Labour party stood for. Its own activists are appalled and many tell me the current Liberal Party education policies are more popular."

He believes politicians have dumbed down the teaching profession. "We've lost the excitement that existed in the 60s and 70s and that feeling of being part of something revolutionary. We used to meet at teacher centres and be full of exciting ways to teach," he said.

A former rower and rugby player, Don Foster recently found himself making news when, barefoot, he chased a thief who had grabbed a friend's bag. He shrugs off his heroics - after all, he survived being shot at during a trip to Bosnia.

His latest enthusiasm, thanks to his wife, is riding, despite an unfortunate episode pony trekking as a child (he will happily show you the scars). And at the age of 51, he has his first denim jacket. "I know I'll probably look a prat in it, but I don't care."

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