Plaudits as Clarke moves on

17th December 2004 at 00:00
Union leaders and educationists sing praises of the 'extremely able' former education secretary

Charles Clarke's political legacy in education may be the introduction of university top-up fees, but teachers will remember him for pushing forward a new relationship with the unions which led to the signing of the workload deal.

Many will be hoping that Ruth Kelly, his replacement from the Cabinet Office, will be good news for the Department for Education and Skills. That is if she can call on her three years as a junior Treasury minister to persuade Chancellor Gordon Brown to keep the cash flowing into schools.

Most people had tipped David Miliband, school standards minister, to step into Mr Clarke's shoes. Famously dubbed as a Year 8 in a suit, the 39-year-old, who had previously headed Tony Blair's policy unit, has long been tipped for high office. Despite his popularity within the Department for Education and Skills and his ability to keep out of trouble (even as minister in charge of exams during the AS fiasco), he has moved to become a minister in the Cabinet Office.

Ted Wragg, TES columnist and emeritus professor of education at Exeter university, voiced his disappointment. "I'd rather it would have been David Miliband. He's an intelligent and thoughtful man, and his heart's in the right place. I think he would have been very good," he said.

Chris Keates, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers general secretary, said of Mr Clarke: "He was the first Education Secretary to recognise there is no conflict of interest between the workforce agenda and the standards agenda.

"He has been extremely able and I understand entirely that the Prime Minister wanted to move him to such an important job."

This view was shared by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers "I would give him a high rating," he said.

"There is no doubt that he has involved the teachers' organisations more and more in the development of Government policy and he pays attention to the views of headteachers."

Even Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers which had been sidelined by government for not signing the workforce agreement, had good words to say: "Charles Clarke has been a person who I have been able to trust in our discussions. I felt that we would have been able to find a way in which we could work together in making a contribution to education."

Mr Clarke was well liked by civil servants in his department. They admired his ability to grasp complicated issues quickly and to absorb lengthy documents at speed. They had confidence in his political instincts and welcomed his ability to find a way through a crisis after the battering the department suffered under Estelle Morris, his predecessor.

They also liked the fact that he was "a big political beast" who had influence across the Government. He was a workaholic during the week, often working long past midnight but disappeared to see his family at weekends.

Mr Clarke won favour with the Prime Minister by pushing through the top-up fee legislation. His colleague Alan Johnson, then higher education minister, said it had been known as a "charm offensive. I was charming and he was offensive," he said.

More recently Mr Clarke showed he was unafraid to speak his mind, calling Prince Charles "old fashioned and out of time" after the prince suggested in a letter used in a employment tribunal that young people these days had ideas above their station.

Not all are willing to praise Mr Clarke's work. Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, told Sky TV: "Things have not progressed very well since Charles Clarke has been at the department for education. I thought Clarke would be a man of robust views. Things have gone backwards over the past three years."

Teacher unions said they were also saddened to learn of the resignation of David Blunkett, who had been education secretary from 1997 to 2001.

David Hart said: "This is a personal tragedy for a politician who had a passionate commitment to improving the lot of pupils who were underachieving.

"The power politicians exercise is enormous and cannot be exercised in a way that trespasses on their personal lives."

Leader 14; opinion 15

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