Shelf-made man at the top

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Alan Johnson, a former stacker at Tesco, now has the whole education world in his hands. Graeme Paton reports

Alan Johnson was orphaned as a child, left school with no qualifications, shunned college and university and got a job stacking shelves.

It is not your average CV for a man just chosen to shape the nation's education system. But then Mr Johnson, the dapper 55-year-old, appointed as Tony Blair's fifth Education Secretary as part of a Cabinet reshuffle last week, has never conformed to stereotypes.

Throughout his career, he has played the part of both militant and moderniser, helping to win friends across the left. Some have also tipped him as a Blairite challenger to Gordon Brown as the Labour party's next leader.

His political ambitions emerged at an early age when he walked out of a job at Tesco because he was not allowed a lunch-break, and at 18 became a postman.

Mr Johnson, born in Chelsea, west London, quickly became a strong local voice in the trade union ranks and played a key role in the 1971 Post Office strike, before becoming a full-time union official in 1987. Six years later, he was appointed the youngest-ever general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, but was already showing signs of deserting the hard left. In 1994, he hired the Conservatives' public relations guru, Lord Bell, to help fight plans to privatise the Post Office, and in 1995 was the only union leader to speak out in favour of revising Clause 4.

In 1997, he won the safe Labour seat of Hull West and Hessle. Since then, his rise through the ranks has steadily gathered pace. He stepped on to the ministerial ladder at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999, but it was within the Department for Education and Skills that he made his name by steering through the highly controversial university top-up fees legislation.

He acted as the perfect foil to Charles Clarke, the privately-educated education secretary. As the reforms sneaked through by just five votes, Mr Johnson said: "I was part of the charm offensive with Charles Clarke. I did the charming and he was offensive."

Mr Johnson was rewarded with a position in the Cabinet, as secretary of state for work and pensions and - latterly - trade and industry, before being recalled to the DfES last week to steer Mr Blair's Government through another education crisis: the creation of a wave of semi-independent trust schools.

David Willetts, shadow education secretary, who clashed with Mr Johnson during stints as Tory spokesman for pensions and trade and industry, said:

"Things must be pretty bad in education if they had to send for Alan Johnson. He was sent to tackle the pensions crisis, then we've had the energy crisis, so now Tony Blair must realise how serious the problems in our education system are."

Mr Johnson, a father-of-four and keen Queens Park Rangers supporter, will be seen as a much safer pair of hands than his predecessor, Ruth Kelly. His cheeky London twang will be a welcome relief to many put off by Ms Kelly's monotone delivery, said by one commentator to be "more suited to statistics than schoolchildren".

Union leaders welcomed his arrival. The National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers, which are being snubbed by ministers for not taking part in the social partnership, said they looked forward to speaking to Mr Johnson.

It remains to be seen if his common touch will be truly common enough for everyone.

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk Diary 21

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