Rhino charge through 100 days

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Jon Slater looks back on Education Secretary Charles Clarke's eventful first few months in office.

From cooking up ways to improve school dinners with TV chef Jamie Oliver to being roasted by students over top-up fees, it has been a busy first 100 days as Education Secretary for Charles Clarke.

He has seen through a major shake-up of the secondary curriculum that paves the way for an English baccalaureate. And he has presented the controversial higher education reforms - that could haunt the Labour party until the next election.

Mr Clarke thrives under pressure. Only hours after his appointment the wine was poured for the press which got a first taste of the Education Secretary "unplugged". Mr Clarke voiced his opinion on almost anything in his fluent, shorthand-challenging delivery.

He has started as he means to go on: his diary is a testimony to the whirlwind of engagements. He has relished taking charge of a high-spending department, leaving behind his background role of party chairman. Mr Clarke's average working day has included at least 10 engagements and there have been 15 school visits since he took the post.

In his first interview, Mr Clarke told The TES that there were "too many" targets and criticised the idea of a "ladder of improvement" for secondary schools despite Tony Blair's previous endorsement.

Within a few weeks awed civil servants had dubbed him"rhinoceros", not because of his bulk but because once he chooses a direction he is difficult to stop or turn around.

Civil servants have not been the only ones on the receiving end. Mr Clarke decided to press ahead with a workload deal despite the opposition of the largest teaching union.

The bizarre spectacle of union leaders linking arms with the Secretary of State (his idea) at the signing ceremony highlighted the National Union of Teachers' isolation - although the union had the last laugh when Mr Clarke's big media launch was overshadowed by reports of the NUT's claims that the deal could lead to classes of 60.

Despite this public disagreement, the NUT is generally positive about Mr Clarke's first 100 days.

"Although he has yet to make one issue his own there are signs that he might with comprehensives, said John Bangs, the union's head of education.

His 'comprehensive-plus' phrase is a step forward from talk of a postcomprehensive era."

The biggest challenge has been in higher education. The compromise formula, scrapping the up-front tuition fees in favour of the cost being paid after graduation, but allowing universities to charge up to pound;3,000, was a battle he won at the expense of Chancellor Gordon Brown. Last Sunday's papers were full of speculation touting him as Tony Blair's heir apparent.

"There is no doubt that he punched his political weight and with the help of the PM defeated the Chancellor," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.

Mr Hart believes that the next 100 days will be harder. Target-setting, league tables and funding, which have so far been left in the shadows, will inevitably take the spotlight.

How Mr Clarke manages the potentially difficult three-way relationship between himself the Prime Minister and Chancellor will be crucial to his eventual success or failure.

One thing is certain, if Mr Clarke's first 100 days in education are anything to go by, then rumours that Mr Blair decided not to give him the transport portfolio for fear he would attract too much attention are well justified.

Clarke's penpals, Dairy, 21

A week in a life

Diary for November 25-30

Monday: Travel from Norwich. Meetings with MPs and officials on policy plus a Commons vote on Iraq.

Tuesday: Speech to CBI conference in Manchester

Wednesday: Pre-budget report

Thursday: Cabinet, education questions in the Commons, Kent secondary heads conference.

Friday: Constituency day.

Saturday: Norwich win 1-0 at home to Derby to go fourth in the league Division 1 table.

Plus school visits, routine meetings and, of course, drinks events

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