From the sharp end of failure

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Phil Willis tells Sarah Cassidy why working for the Liberal Democrats is like having your hand in the sweetie jar.

BEING a headteacher-turned-politician is like being a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, says Phil Willis, the Lib Dems education spokesman. After more than 30 years "at the sharp end of failure" as a teacher then head in tough inner-city schools, he is now enjoying being on the other side.

"It's like being a child looking at a huge jar of sweets. And then one day all the adults go home and you get your hands on them," he says gleefully.

This is his first party conference since he has had the education brief and he is obviously relishing the opportunity.

You can still see the teacher in the politician - he is a charismatic speaker and a natural performer. At a conference fringe session, Mr Willis is soon on his feet waving his arms to illustrate his points while everyone else sits quietly behind a table.

As a teenager he intended to become a professional footballer. He was on the books of Burnley FC when the side was at the top of the first division.

But his life was turned upside down when his mother, a nurse, died when he was 13. Then Burnley selectors decided he did not have the makings of a professional and he started drifting.

He said: "It was the intervention of creative teachers that really saved me. I was a very unhappy and angry boy but teachers came to see me and persuaded me to go back to school to do my A-levels.

"I left school with a real vocation to teach because I wanted to be like the people who had helped me."

He trained as a teacher at City of Leeds College and spent most of his teaching career in the city. At 36, he became one of the youngest headteachers in the country when he joined Ormesby school in Middlesbrough in 1978.

In 1983 he returned to Leeds as head of one of the city's largest comprehensives, John Smeaton community high school.

He always had a strong interest in politics, alhough he did not join the Liberal party until 1985. Until the early Eighties he was a Labour supporter but the rise of Militant left him disillusioned.

Once a Liberal party member, his rise was swift. In 1988 he was elected to Harrogate council; two years later he was its leader.

He cheerfully admits that politics has dominated his life since he was elected to North Yorkshire County Council in 1993. But he was working as a full-time headteacher up until his election as MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough in 1997.

He was immediately made spokesman for further, higher and adult education and promoted to the top job in education for the Liberal Democrats in October last year. His predecessor, Don Foster, raised the profile of the Liberal Democrats' education policy. The party is now regarded as the most intelligent opposition to government policy.

Teaching may have been a vocation, but Mr Willis would not have stayed a head if he had failed to be elected. "I have no regrets about the time I spent in teaching, but I felt I had gone as far as I could as a head and would have wanted to do something else. I would probably have gone into business - probably in PR. But I might not have lasted long because I like more direct responsibility and influence.

"I would shoot myself rather than become an OFSTED inspector," he adds.

His spare time is spent on the football terraces supporting Leeds United or at the ballet. "I love the escapism and beauty of ballet."

He and his wife Heather, a part-time teacher, live just outside Harrogate "living the Good Life" with their four cats and organic vegetable patch. In London he shares a flat with his 24-year-old daughter Rachel, an international catwalk model who now plays Connie in the AOL internet adverts. You are not likely to see him on the party circuit.

He said: "I'm not a great socialite and have never been good at going to dinners and parties. If it's not work-related I don't go."

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