Labour big men strike blow for ex-teacher

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Blair and Brown drop in to shore up support for former deputy headteacher Vernon Coaker in his vulnerable Nottingham seat. Biddy Passmore reports

You won't catch Vernon Coaker taking party politics into schools.

The Labour candidate for the suburban Nottingham seat of Gedling firmly removes his red rosette as he approaches All Hallows primary school and instructs the driver of his "battle bus", discreetly clad in red-and-yellow stickers, to park out of sight. Not an instruction from Millbank, he insists, just "me being sensitive".

After 20 years as a humanities teacher before he became the first-ever Labour MP for the formerly safe Tory seat of Gedling in 1997, Mr Coaker should be sensitive about muddling the worlds of school and politics. But, even without his rosette, he can't enter the school unnoticed. "You were on the telly," crow two boys in red sweatshirts as he enters the playground. Soon others are gathering round.

As the candidate for one of Labour's top 50 most vulnerable seats - just a 3.6 per cent swing would send it back to the Tories - Vernon Coaker has been graced with a campaign visit from the Prime Minister. Television cameras watched them tour together in an open-topped bus (Mr Coaker still has the sunburn to show for it) and visit an old people's home.

And as the most junior member of Gordon Brown's Treasury team - he is parliamentary private secretary to Stephen Timms, the Financial Secretary - Mr Coaker has even earned a visit from the Chancellor.

But, regardless of help from the Big Cheeses, he seems to be a well-known face in the constituency.

Partly this is the result of all those years teaching at a succession of Nottingham schools, culminating in a two-and-a-half-year stint as deputy head of Big Wood 11-16 comprehensive (in the next constituency, alas). His campaigning tends to be punctuated by exclamations from those he meets like "You taught my Mum!" or (as valuably recorded by the local paper in 1997) "He was the best teacher I ever had".

But partly his high degree of recognition comes from the nature of the man. The big voice, the relentless energy and natural empathy that made him a successful teacher seem to make him a pretty successful candidate too.

Whether crouching down to admire the ardboard houses of infant designers, sitting down with pensioners over a cup of tea, or commiserating with a council house tenant over rising damp (Gedling has a Tory council) he is just very good at getting on with people.

Education doesn't seem to get much of a mention on the streets and doorsteps of the constituency, a compact, modestly prosperous area of mostly owner-occupied estates with a former mine in the middle. Mostly, people are just pleased to see him and seem supportive, with the exception of an elderly gentleman with a pound;badge on his blazer who politely but firmly declines to engage in conversation.

Mr Coaker told The TES at the time of the 1997 election that teachers' morale was poor, that they were looking for a fresh beginning and "I think that's what they will receive." What does he think now?

His answer is pure Blunkett. "There is a tension between the tremendous desire to reform and improve education - which in the main has been very successful - and increasing the pressure on teachers," he says.

"I think I maybe underestimated the impact reform would have on people already feeling stressed and overworked."

His wife Jacky, a primary supply teacher, turns up at campaign headquarters at lunchtime to help out. They met when Vernon, the son of a London policeman, was studying politics at Warwick University and she was at teacher training college. Her first teaching post was in Nottingham so he applied to do his post-graduate training there - and stayed.

Would she rather be married to a teacher or an MP? "Oh, whatever makes him happy," she replies nobly, making no mention of the weeks when she looks after their two teenage children, Laura and Matthew, while he lives in a flat near the Oval in London. "He really enjoyed teaching but I think he enjoys this even more."

He has found his classroom experience useful in politics in one unexpected way: he learnt never to take anything personally.

"The kids are not actually shouting at you," he says. "And you must never call them stupid - you call their behaviour stupid."

Does he miss teaching? "I miss it a lot - and I'm not odd either," he says. But would he come back to it? asks a former colleague. "I hope it's a decision I won't have to make," he says.

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