Profile - 'I have an odd background for an education minister'

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Sarah Teather dismissed the Conservatives' plan for free schools as a 'gimmick' before the election. Now, as children's minister, she is charged with championing it. Richard Vaughan spoke to the young Lib Dem about her new life in the Coalition

This time last year, The TES interviewed Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg ahead of his party's conference. Back then not even he could have thought, one year on, that he would be deputy prime minister, helping to lead a coalition Government.

And neither, it seems, did children's minister Sarah Teather. The 36-year-old Lib Dem MP for Brent Central had actually booked a holiday for after the election. To be part of Government at this stage of the young politician's career was as unexpected to her as anyone else.

"I hoped that I would be in Government at some point in my career, but I really had not expected it or planned for it," Ms Teather says.

But in the Department for Education, the ambitious Lib Dem now finds herself in the vanguard of some of the most radical, and perhaps even controversial, public sector reforms seen in 20 years.

"We've certainly been in the news a lot," she says dryly.

No doubt a healthy sense of humour is needed when working in a coalition, not least among her Conservative colleagues when taking into account her comments on some of the Tories' policies prior to the general election.

Before May, Ms Teather had dismissed Education Secretary Michael Gove's plans for free schools as a "shambles" and a "gimmick". But now the children's minister is charged with not only offering them her support, but actively championing them.

It would appear that this is a dramatic concession being made by the Liberal Democrats who, pre-election, were calling for local authorities to have "more powerful strategic powers" that would include the ability to intervene in failing schools, control admissions and even take control of capital investment.

However, Ms Teather says her conversations with the Education Secretary have led her to think otherwise.

"He has addressed some of the issues I had," she says. "When I called them a shambles, a number of Conservative councillors were raising issues around the strategic role of the local authority.

"Because Liberal Democrats are in Government, Michael is now addressing these concerns. He has set up a high-level group to advise on local authorities' strategic role and he is doing a lot of work and a lot of thinking in that area for when the changing structure of the school system happens."

But despite her acceptance of new academies and free schools, it does not mean the Lib Dem always sees eye to eye with her Conservative colleagues, a feat made all the more difficult when taken into account that she faces odds of four to one against.

"It is exciting and challenging in equal measure," she says candidly. "I am lucky with the ministerial team here because they are extremely good. It really matters that you respect the people you are working with on a personal level because there will always be differences of opinion.

"We are two parties who came together to form a Government, and we continue to be two parties who come from separate philosophical traditions. The truth be told, there are differences of opinion in any government, but here we have a proper reason for it."

There is little doubt the young politician has a tremendously level head, a trait that will no doubt hold her in good stead as the Coalition continues to lurch forward with its slightly awkward gait.

In truth, many might be forgiven for forgetting Ms Teather is actually working within the DfE, as the headlines have been dominated by Mr Gove. However, this is all likely to change in the coming weeks as the children's minister is about to preside over two hugely important pieces of policy.

The first is a possible drastic overhaul of the special educational needs (SEN) system. Last week, Ms Teather announced a call for evidence from anyone involved in SEN that will feed into a green paper that is expected to be published in November.

The paper could result in the first piece of legislation on SEN reform for nearly 10 years and could be a tremendously popular move by a Government that is still viewed with some suspicion.

At the heart of the reforms, the minister says, is a need for a more "transparent" system that affords parents greater choice over where and how their child is educated.

It is a subject that is close to a number of members of the Coalition. The Prime Minister's eldest child Ivan had severe disabilities before his death last year, and Michael Gove's sister is deaf. But it is equally pertinent for Ms Teather, who spent the majority of her secondary school days in a wheelchair.

"It is not something I have talked about very much," she says. "I spent four of my teenage years very ill and missed a lot of school. In fact, I spent most of that time in a wheelchair. I had a viral infection and complications, so I was in and out of hospital for about four years. So I have experience of being a young person growing up with a disability - the frustration of realising that it was affecting my education."

The ailment led to her being in and out of school. If it wasn't for a friend with neat handwriting whose notes she photocopied, or Letts revision guides, she would not have passed her GCSEs.

"I have a very odd education background for an education minister," she says. "But sometimes the things that go wrong inform your need to change the system as well as anything."

It is this first-hand knowledge of missing out that has made her particularly passionate about her second responsibility, overseeing the implementation of the pupil premium. The policy is one of the major concessions the Liberal Democrats won when forging a partnership with the Conservatives, and it is one that Ms Teather introduced at the Lib Dem conference three years ago.

The details of how the premium will work are still to be decided, and the amount schools will receive for taking on children from more deprived backgrounds will be announced in the comprehensive spending review in October. But for the children's minister it is policies such as the pupil premium that make her job in politics worthwhile.

"For me, this is the most exciting part of the job," she says. "When Nick Clegg said I was going to be in the education department, the thought of being able to be part of the team that is implementing something that I took to the Lib Dem conference and developed as policy is quite exciting.

"Hopefully that will make an enormous difference in terms of the amount of resources that will be available for young people from different backgrounds, who at the moment are failing to deliver at the same level as those from better off backgrounds.

"And that is the biggest scandal of the legacy of the Labour government - whatever they might say, they failed miserably in narrowing the gap between rich and poor in terms of educational attainment. Still, tragically, your birth is your fate. Your parents' income is the greatest predictor of how well you do at school and that's not right in this day and age."

And yet, for all its benefits, the pupil premium could still be a sticking point between the two parties - or, to be more precise, where the two become unstuck.

The pledge of a "significant amount" is open to an infinite amount of subjectivity. Should the Lib Dems decide the final settlement is insufficient it would be hugely undermining to the coalition deal. But for Ms Teather it is too early to be talking about "deal breakers".

"We're only a few months in, it (the Coalition) is going to last five years," she says. "It's a flagship policy and I think the Conservative party is very committed to delivering it. Michael Gove is absolutely committed to delivering it.

"There is an understanding across both parties that this is an extremely important commitment, that it does need to be a significant amount of money and that it needs to come from outside the education budget."

But her words sound as if she is trying to convince herself more than anyone else. It could be argued that if the pupil premium is to succeed it will be through political will more than just the will to see the gap close between the rich and poor.

If that will breaks then it could have serious ramifications for the Coalition, but it is unlikely it would mean the end of politics for Ms Teather, as she is undoubtedly in it for the long haul.

"I have always said there is no Plan B," she adds. The longer she stays in Government, the less she will need to figure that out.

Sarah teather's CV

1974: Born in Enfield, London

1985: Educated at John Ferneley High School, Melton Mowbray

1987: Joined the independent Leicester Grammar School

1992: Studied natural sciences at St John's College, Cambridge

2002: Became councillor for Islington Borough Council

2003: Elected Lib Dem MP for Brent East

2006: Appointed Lib Dem education spokesperson

2007: Appointed Lib Dem universities spokesperson

2008: Appointed Lib Dem housing spokesperson

2010: Appointed minister of state for children for the Coalition.

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