'Savvy' Johnson outshines Ruth Kelly

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Charming, approachable Education Secretary seen as welcome change. But what about his policies? William Stewart reports

Alan Johnson's appointment as Education Secretary in May was welcomed by an education world less than enchanted by his predecessor. Teachers and union leaders hoped that the 56-year-old would signal a new approach.

So, as everyone packs up for the summer, do they think the former postman is delivering? Even though he has only been in the job less than three months, so far the broad answer seems to be yes.

John Hall, Church of England chief education officer, describes the new education secretary as a "good thing". "We were impressed by his quiet confidence, his ability to listen and his understanding of a variety of positions," he said.

Bob Garnett, president of the Confederation of Children's Services Managers said: "We get the impression that Alan Johnson is much more firmly in control of his brief than his predecessor."

That comparison with Ruth Kelly, widely criticised for her monotone delivery and seen by some as a "number 10" stooge, is likely to play to Mr Johnson's advantage for some time.

Even those among unions signed up to partnership with government in pay and workforce deals had grown weary of the previous regime. "She just didn't engage in the debate," said one senior figure.

Some portrayed Mr Johnson, who skilfully handled the Government's controversial university top-up fees legislation, as a potential saviour for the equally tricky education bill, which angered many by promoting state-funded independent trust schools.

But by the time the grinning, shades-wearing Education Secretary had left Downing Street with his new brief it was already clear he could rely on Conservative support to defeat the major Labour backbench rebellion he faced.

Nevertheless, Mr Johnson was plunged in at the deep end and had to guide the bill through its latest Commons hurdle less than three weeks after starting the job.

He passed with flying colours, with his emollient approach again impressing MPs and perhaps helping to reduce the rebellion.

The charm of the Londoner, who prides himself on his dapper appearance and described himself as a Mod in a very flirty interview with Boris Johnson's former inamorata Petronella Wyatt, has not gone unnoticed in the education world.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, describes him as a smooth operator. "He is very approachable and politically very savvy," she said.

But it is Mr Johnson's leadership ambitions rather than his views on education that have generated most newspaper coverage since May.

In June, he used an interview on GMTV to put himself forward for John Prescott's job, and deftly furthered his working-class "boy made good"

image, by revealing he used to deliver mail to Dorneywood, the deputy PM's country pile.

In the same month, we learned a little more about his background when Linda, his elder sister, revealed how she had fought to avoid him being taken into care after the death of their mother when he was 12. The siblings, already abandoned by their drunken father, had been left in abject poverty.

Slowly, the first signs of Mr Johnson's education policy ideas are also beginning to emerge.

This week's news that he is no longer pursuing the controversial target of increasing university entrance to 50 per cent of school leavers, may have been overshadowed by the revelation that he had helped a constituent apply for a private school bursary, but it was significant.

His other recent policy hint, that teachers can expect the stress from tests, league tables and Ofsted to intensify, has not gone down well.

Ms Bousted said teachers needed more pressure "like a hole in the head".

Nevertheless, she still thought Mr Johnson deserved an A-minus in his end of term report.

Mick Brookes was less forgiving. The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers originally gave a "shows promise" verdict on the education secretary. But after reading the comments Mr Johnson made to the Commons education select committee, said: "He has slipped in my ratings quite considerably."

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

Making of a minister

* Born London 17550

* Left Sloane grammar, Chelsea, aged 15, without qualifications

* After stacking Tesco shelves became postman in Slough, aged 18

* Became full-time union official in 1987

* 1993, became youngest ever Communication Workers Union general secretary

* Elected Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle 1997

* Made trade minister 1999, higher education minister 2000, work and pensions secretary 2004, trade and industry secretary 2005 and education secretary in May 2006.

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