Sexy charmer picked for business vision

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore meets the adviser on putting private enterprise into schools

The odd thing about Howard Davies is that he is actually very interested in education.

He has maintained that interest throughout a career that has taken him from the civil service and management consultancy to the top of the Audit Commission, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority, the chief city regulator.

In 1995, for instance, one of the 11 inner-city schools selected for the National Commission of Education's study, Success against the Odds, had the unusual experience of visits from the director-general of the CBI - Mr Davies in his day job at the time. And they were far from token visits. Peter Mortimore, former director of London University's Institute of Education, who had invited Davies to take part in the study, said he proved "a very good member, throwing himself into the task, missing no visits and bringing a business perspective to our teams".

Now Sir Howard (knighted a year ago) has been asked by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to chair a major review of the role of business and enterprise in education, reporting back by the end of January next year.

"We want every young person to hear about business and enterprise in school; every college student to be made aware of the opportunities in business - and to start a business; every teacher to be able to communicate the virtues and potential of business and enterprise," said the Chancellor. Sir Howard is to tell the Government how.

He has little time for the crude "they don't teach them to read, write and add up" lament often heard from employers. But he has equally little time for the anti-business ethic often found in education and has blasted columnist Ted Wragg in The TES for attacking the Private Finance Initiative (and, more woundingly, for the "leaden touch" of his prose).

But it is not as though he had nothing else to do at the Financial Services Authority. Davies seems to have boundless physical and mental energy, bearing out the old adage about the virtues of giving a job to a busy man.

Julia Cleverdon, director of Business in the Community, says he is a great cross-fertiliser of ideas. "He's always kept up things that keep him in touch with reality, like education, as well as the things he's doing at the moment, like the Euro or competition policy," she says.

"He's a very ingenious creature who gets his ideas and insights from a wide range of places. He's genuinely fascinated by how you make things happen in a public service, without the sticks and carrots that might operate in other places."

One of his first acts on moving to the FSA at Canary Wharf, she says, was to ring Business in the Community and ask how the authority could help develop links with schools in the surrounding Docklands area. An "extremely progressive" programme of pupil mentoring and providing leadership partners for heads was the result.

He's also, she adds, "the funniest after-dinner speaker in Britain". His wit, energy and informal charm must explain his popularity, especially with women. He was once voted one of the most desirable men in Britain by listeners to Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

An only child from a modest background in Manchester, Davies won a scholarship to Manchester grammar school, where he founded and edited the school paper, the Mancunian. (He still likes to write for publication and is a notably waspish book-reviewer.) He won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he studied history and then French. A Harkness Fellowship to study business at Stanford University in California followed, before a period of dipping in and out of the public sector. This included a stint at the British Embassy in Paris followed by six years at the Treasury, five at the management consultants McKinsey and Co, then back to the Treasury. (He once applied for membership of the Islington Labour party, then worked for the Tory government but now seems happy with New Labour.) From there, he shot straight to the post of controller of the Audit Commission. There, and subsequently at the CBI, he dramatically raised the public and political profile of the job during his tenure.

Despite his hectic schedule, Howard Davies is not a workaholic. In 1984, he married Prudence Keely, a television journalist, and tries to make time for his two sons, now teenagers, by dropping one off at school on his way to work and arranging meetings so he can attend school functions. He is a Manchester City fan and was a keen five-a-side footballer until injuring his left knee. Now he contents himself with his other passion, cricket, playing for Barnes Cricket Club in south-west London.

While at the CBI, he supported legislation to give parents more time off to look after their children.

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