Ruth Kelly came from nowhere. One minute she was the hard-working but unobtrusive MP for Bolton West; the next she was Education Secretary. Elaine Williams finds out what her constituents make of it all
The caretaker was looking for mourning vestments when Father Harry Jones arrived for Mass at St Mary's Roman Catholic primary school in Bolton, where he is chair of governors. Father Harry dares to support Manchester City in a parish within kicking distance of Bolton Wanderers' stadium, and as Bolton had just thrashed City he was prepared for the worst. The caretaker's little joke was just the beginning. Staff and students were in no mood to spare him a ribbing.
A parish priest in Bolton for 37 years, Father Harry's affability reflects the present good humour of the town. Bolton is on the crest of a wave.
Wanderers are near the top of the Premier League; the town now has a university and its chances of becoming a city are ever nearer; it was the only place outside Manchester to host the Commonwealth Games; its derelict cotton mills are being restored as flats; comedian Peter Kay has affirmed its sound comic sense; Olympic boxing hero Amir Khan has made its youngsters proud; and one of its MPs has risen to become Secretary of State for Education and Skills.
St Mary's school is in Horwich, Bolton West, Ruth Kelly's constituency, and Father Harry is her parish priest. The Catholic Times headline proclaimed that Father Harry was "proud" to have the Education Secretary within his parish but that, he says, was a bit of an exaggeration. He is pleased she's a good Catholic and her children are well behaved when they attend Mass, but he is far too preoccupied with the usual issues of life and death and being chair of governors at two schools (the other being St Joseph's RC high school and sports college, Horwich) to have given her appointment that much consideration.
Neither was he exercised by the brouhaha that ensued when her membership of Opus Dei, a controversial wing of the Catholic church, often vilified for its secrecy and association with the wealthy and powerful, became public.
He had no idea, he says, that she had anything to do with Opus Dei and, for that matter, he doesn't know much about the organisation. "It's not flourishing in this part of the world," he says, though the Salford diocese (which includes Bolton) does have an old joke that Opus Dei, along with the Kremlin and the Bolton Deanery (which once achieved minor notoriety for its radicalism), constitute the three enemies of the church.
Her Catholicism may not be an issue in this multi-faith community, but Ms Kelly could benefit from the fact that she is young (37), and a mother of four. Female voters will play a key role in next month's general election, and certainly Muslim mothers accompanying their children during "family time" first thing in the morning at the Valley community primary school in Halliwell, Bolton's poorest ward, think Ms Kelly is a good thing. "She is a mother so she understands what education is about and she is keeping A-levels so she will be maintaining standards," says one, echoing the sentiments of the group. She swells the growing list of female executive leaders in the town: the vice-chancellor of the university and head of Bolton College are women, as is the mayor; the leader of the council; the director of education and culture; the chairs of the primary care trust and mental health trust; and the director of public health.
In the Mass Observation of 1937 (the intention was to record a slice of life in the mid-20th century) Bolton was described as a "worktown", typical of industrial communities. It is still regarded as something of a national barometer during elections; if Bolton swings one way, the country will usually follow. Bolton council is run by the Liberal Democrats after being a Labour stronghold for 24 years, and Ms Kelly holds a marginal seat: her majority in the last election was just 5,000, down from 7,000 in 1997, when she snatched the seat from the Tories.
But Labour has a good record in defending marginals and Ms Kelly has certainly worked hard as an MP. John Baumber is executive head of two schools, Rivington and Blackrod high school in Horwich, a technology college, and Ladybridge, a restart secondary, which draws from the poorest inner wards of the town and which he has brought out of special measures.
His arrival coincided with Ms Kelly's election and she has been supportive throughout. Even during the frantic pre-election schedule she has found time to attend the official opening of Ladybridge. "She has given enormously of her time," says Mr Baumber. "She has an enthusiastic way of speaking, but she's very calm and relaxed with the local community."
However, he is not uncritical. He is disappointed that Ms Kelly rejected the Tomlinson proposals on 14-19 education. Indeed, in response to government inaction, he is considering establishing a Bolton West Diploma as an overarching record of achievement. That, he says, is the Bolton way.
"We've always found a pragmatic way of achieving something when the system doesn't fit."
St Joseph's high school, a couple of miles nearer Bolton centre than Rivington and Blackrod, is one of the highest achieving secondary schools in the authority with, says Father Harry Jones, an extremely hard-working head, Leo Conley, dedicated staff and a strong emphasis on the extracurricular. However, managing the finances is painful. Three teachers are about to take early retirement and it is unlikely the school will be able to replace them.
Father Harry's concerns are echoed by headteachers all over the town. There might be more money, particularly for capital works, but heads are not free to spend it as they see fit because it's all in different pots and extricating it is a bureaucratic nightmare. There is also a feeling that Bolton is not getting the help it needs. "We are poorly funded in relation to the national picture," says Margaret Blenkinsop, the authority's director of education. She points out that one third of the borough is in the bottom 10 per cent of the most deprived wards in England and around 43 per cent of its children live in families on state benefits.
When Ruth Kelly pronounced in March that the Government wants to move towards bespoke education, that schools must fashion small teaching groups tailor-made for children's individual needs, she provoked derision from the Secondary Heads Association and a stoical weariness in Bolton. People know that she is well intentioned, hard-working, a good listener. But she runs the danger, says Ms Blenkinsop, of becoming part of a young breed, led by the Cabinet Office minister David Miliband, who cannot resist "teaching grannies how to suck eggs". "Yes, of course we see the virtue of teaching small groups, of course we would want it, but there are huge budgetary implications and issues about how on earth you staff all this," she says.
David Johnson is headteacher of Red Lane primary, a former beacon school in Breightmet, an area of housing estates with relatively high unemployment.
He has done everything he can to implement the Government's extended schools agenda. His primary was one of the first in the country to establish a neighbourhood nursery, and now has an intake that ranges from babies to 11-year-olds in a school day that starts at 7.30am and ends at 6pm. The aim is to raise employment opportunities for parents and educational aspirations for their children.
Change is essential, says Mr Johnson, but the Government allows no time for bedding in and nothing is properly costed. "Pressure for change is good, but where, for example, is the strategy on pay scales for extended schools? Bolton LEA has supported me to meet the needs of my community - Margaret Blenkinsop is always in schools, very proactive - but the Government seems to have no idea of what it's like to manage a school like this, the sheer volume of day-to-day business," he says.
Bolton heads, however, have perhaps more contact with their local MPs than most. Back in the dark, cash-strapped days of the mid-1990s, heads, teachers, governors and union representatives gathered in the Victorian splendour of the town hall. They called themselves the Bolton 400 and they summoned their MPs to justify their education policies and to listen to what educationists had to say. The Bolton 400 still exist and still call their MPs to account. They meet once a term for a candid exchange of views.
Frank Vigon, headteacher of Turton high school and a wily teacher of politics, was one of the prime movers behind the group and remains one of its leading lights. Ms Kelly, he says, has always listened, but she is also shrewd and sure-footed. She is particularly cautious on funding.
Ultimately, he says, she has a Treasury mind. "Her line has always been that you have to husband your resources as best you can," he says.
Jeremy Glover MBE, chief executive of the Bolton Lads' and Girls' Club, the nationally acclaimed youth club where Amir Khan first trained as a boxer, admires Ruth Kelly's "formidable" intellect and capacity for work. "It's fantastic to have a minister so young and who speaks so well in the town," he says. The club, which started as a hostel in 1889 to sweep up children sleeping under the looms in the mills, now takes thousands of youngsters off the streets and gives them opportunities in sport, dance and the creative arts, in a spanking building, funded with pound;4 million of lottery money.
Mr Glover has spent long days at the club for the past 27 years, working with some of Bolton's most disadvantaged and disaffected young people.
Local business people donate time and money and there is no shortage of volunteers (nearly 300 on roll). Ms Kelly is in that mould, says Mr Glover.
"She's passionate about what she is doing, full of drive."
But raising young people's aspirations and building a culture of valuing further and higher education has been a struggle for the town. When the mills and the locomotive engineering works closed in the 1970s, Bolton went into the doldrums and hopes and dreams went with it. Now, with rising employment (mainly in Bolton West, fortunately for Ms Kelly, with the building of a vast retail outlet, the Reebok stadium and high-tech engineering industry) and the establishment of Britain's newest university, young people are beginning to look upwards and outwards.
Mr Glover says the youth of Bolton are more confident, more relaxed, and that standards are rising. None of Bolton's schools is in special measures, and all secondaries exceed the Government's "floor" target of 25 per cent of GCSE candidates gaining five A*-C grades. Moreover, Bolton has maintained quality provision in sport and music; its music service is deemed second to none by Ofsted.
The town has largely escaped the racial tension that has beset other northern cities such as nearby Oldham. Despite the fact that its sizeable Asian, largely Muslim population (15 per cent of the total) lives in some of its poorest wards, continuing dialogue and openness among community leaders has produced positive relationships.
Gwen Acton OBE, the dramatically blonde, larger than life headteacher of The Valley, a new 550-strong community primary with an almost wholly Muslim intake, has taught in the area for 25 years. The school is painted in bright colours, and visitors to Mrs Acton's office are welcomed with bowls of sugared almonds. School holidays at The Valley have been adapted, initially at the request of pupils, to accommodate the Muslim festivals of Eid; when swimming for girls became problematic, Mrs Acton allowed them to wear tights under their swimming costumes; Islamic dress, she says, "is celebrated". Despite the fact that many children arrive unable to speak English, the school is second in the authority for key stage 2 Sats results and in the top 5 per cent nationally for value added.
Zubeda Patel, a parent and bilingual support assistant, says parents now have high aspirations for their children; many want them to go on to become doctors, teachers, lawyers. The local authority has also given support to the independent Bolton Muslim girls' school, providing training for its newly qualified teachers. Moulana Feruk Ali, a governor at The Valley and Muslim chaplain to the Royal Bolton hospital, says such co-operation and understanding has helped to build a sense of belonging in the Muslim community. "We do not feel isolated in this town; we are part of it, this is our home and we feel at home," he says.
Life in Bolton has improved during New Labour's term of office, but locals attribute the improvement to the town's own hard graft and good judgment, the influence of key local personalities and a pragmatism that has moulded national policy to the town's needs. Bolton feels a good place to be. Will Ruth Kelly still be feeling good about it next month?