Claus Moser - refugee, musician, statistician - brings vast experience to his major report on adult basic skills. Nadene Ghouri reports
A "very rude" Israeli journalist once asked Claus Moser why he had spent his life doing so many things, instead of doing one thing properly. "And what do you do properly?" he asked her. "Journalism," she replied. "No madam," he said, "I can assure you. You do not do that properly."
The story is typical of the man - wit, concert pianist, patron of the arts, champion of state education, the country's chief statistician, social campaigner. A man whose life has moved from a charmed childhood in Berlin to a "wonderful" existence at a progressive English boarding school, from refugee and internee to member of the British establishment.
"Claus is one of the last true Renaissance men," says Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, of which Sir Claus is chairman. "He has the most extraordinary brain and charm, but is incredibly modest. He's of a type we don't make any more."
Yesterday, the Moser report on adult basic skills was published, the most far-reaching investigation yet into the state of the nation's literacy and numeracy. However, it nearly did not appear, because Sir Claus needed a quadruple heart bypass halfway through it.
"I so much wanted to do this report," he says. "I never thought about giving up. David Blunkett was enormously sympathetic and gave us more time. Of course, if I'd died I'd have had to ask someone else to take over!" Despite the levity, the bypass has left him "all too aware of mortality" .
Education has always been a central passion: "That so many people in Britain have difficulty with their reading and writing as a result of poor education is quite unacceptable. It closes so many doors and really is the fastest way to social exclusion. " A lifelong Labour supporter, Sir Claus has every confidence in the children coming through the system today and wants to fight the corner for the adults "let down by the terrible policies" of the previous government.
He said: "Persuading these millions of the difference that education can make to their lives, to their everyday existence, is the greatest challenge. The team behind the report saw it as our responsibility to make it tempting, even attractive, to go down the road to help.
"If it does that then it will be one of the most satisfying things I have achieved in life," he says.
His other great love is music. Sir Claus was chairman of the Royal Opera House from 1974 until 1987 and has been a trustee of both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Opera, among others.
He also chairs the British Museum Development Trust and is chancellor of both Keele University and Israel's Open University.
Sir Claus indulges himself in music at every opportunity. His childhood dream was to be a concert pianist, but when his music teacher told him he would struggle to make the world's top 10 performers, he changed his mind.
He still plays, and recently performed a Mozart piano concerto for 600 people - "the most frightening experience of my life".
Sir Claus was born in Berlin in 1922, to wealthy Jewish parents. He might have gone into the family bank, but his father had higher aspirations: "If you are very, very bright," he told his son, "you might go into school-teaching."
Sir Claus recalls a charmed childhood surrounded by music and culture. But life changed as Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, and his parents had the foresight to leave Germany for Britain before war broke out. On arrival in Britain he was sent to Frensham Heights in Surrey, a progressive independent school, which he loved.
At the onset of war he was interned alongside other Austrian and German nationals. A fellow prisoner decided to keep records of the camp - Sir Claus helped him and his love of statistics was born.
Once released, he took a BSc with statistics as his special subject at the London School of Economics. After graduating with the best degree in his year, he thought he might try to "win the war".
Despite his education, his nationality meant he could only join the lower ranks. He had a hard time in the RAF: "For the first time in my life I found myself deeply unpopular. It took me a long time to work out why. I was a pompous know-all. I learned some hard lessons."
After the war, in 1946, he went back to the LSE as a lecturer. Then came his "lucky phone call", asking if he might like to be statistical adviser to the Robbins Committee - the report which shaped today's higher education.
Robbins became his mentor. "Without him, I'd still be a lecturer at LSE," says Sir Claus. This was followed by other Whitehall engagements until in 1967 he was appointed head of the Government Statistical Service, serving three prime ministers.
"I've always tried to use my statistical ability to throw light on society's ills and inequalities. If one can use it to enhance lives, well, that's a tremendous prize."
FE Focus, 30