Johnson has to head off jobs crisis

12th May 2006 at 01:00
So much blood has been splashed over the Prime Minister's carpet in the past week that you could be forgiven for not having noticed that his biggest-ever reshuffle brought a new Secretary of State for Education.

After all, who cares about the substitution of a father-of-four for a mother-of-four when you can speculate about a looming leadership challenge?

And yet much depends on Alan Johnson, whose previous, junior post in education left him with the credit for introducing university top-up fees.

After nine years, Tony Blair wants his premiership to leave something other than Iraq to posterity, and top of his legacy list is the education Bill.

This document and its trust schools were in trouble from the start, thanks to the spin put on the Bill by Mr Blair, who had to rely on Conservative support to get it through its first Commons vote.

If anyone can get it through the next round of rebellions, it is Mr Johnson, whose charm and union leader background make him an unusually skilled politician.

And yet, if it comes to protecting the Prime Minister's legacy, the reality is that there are many more pressing items in Mr Johnson's red box.

Mr Blair believes that trust schools would improve educational standards for their pupils. Fine - unless they are outnumbered by schools where educational standards are threatened for lack of a headteacher.

During the past year, the Government appears to have had its fingers stuck firmly in its ears against this looming crisis as the traditionally moderate headteachers' unions become increasingly desperate.

They say potential heads are put off by the workload, pressure to get results, risk of a post-Ofsted sacking and lack of a clear pay differential between deputies and heads. The suggestion that Ofsted inspectors are downgrading more schools using disputed data (page 2) will not help.

The profession has good reason to be well-disposed towards Mr Johnson, who in his last job did much to protect serving teachers' pensions. If he listens carefully, and lives up to his reputation as a sharp operator, then he may give Mr Blair not only the educational legacy he wants, but the one he needs.

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