Team players on and off pitch
WHEN the 14-19 minister Ivan Lewis meets Howard Davies, head of the Financial Services Authority, in closed session, it is to discuss a pressing question of our age.
Their coterie - a growing band of MPs and prominent Westminster observers, including author, Colin Shindler - meet again this autumn to revive the debate: "Just why were Man City demoted from the football Premiership this year?" Lewis has just one regret: "Colin wrote the book Manchester United Ruined My Life - and I wish I'd written it." Had he other regrets? Such as quitting school early, rejecting a promising path to academe? "No," he says. "Not in the least."
One of the first things he did when he entered the Commons in 1997 was to found the Westminster branch of the Man City supporters club. And he won't give up on the team in low times. "There will come a time when we emerge from the Wilderness Years. It's like New Labour."
The club is indicative of two qualities in Lewis. First, he retains a passion for local issues despite his elevation. Second, he is the sort who likes to start clubs - and stick with them - rather than join other people's. This trait has shaped his life and helps explain why he quit formal learning relatively early.
The 34-year-old's large government portfolio of youth duties includes the Connexions advice and guidance service. If it had been formed 20 years ago, the audacious 14-year-old Lewis would undoubtedly have taken charge locally, in Bury, where his family lived.
In fact, he did something not far removed. While still at secondary school, he got involved in the voluntary sector. Not content to be part of it, he was soon running it. "By 16, I did not want to continue with formal education. I decided voluntary work was my career."
And by 19, he was running Contact, a community care group that is still going strong. "It was very exciting developing an organisation from scratch at 19."
The task was as tough as most youths today would face on a modern apprenticeship. He had to master local administration, fund-raising, supervising and training volunteers. "It was all-consuming. People with learning disabilities were an amazing group to work with. The important thing was to make connections," he says with no note of irony. "Services have been very patchy for that group of people. This has to change."
His own education "in the University of Life" has given Lewis an instinctive feel for the need to see learning as a balance between qualifications and experiences tailored to suit individual needs.
The son of a salesman with ambitions for his children, he was regarded at 14 as a person who would go to university and then get a proper job. "My parents are still waiting for me to get a proper job."
But community work veered him towards politics. He joined the Labour party at 19, was elected to Bury council at 23. He entered the Commons at 30, where he soon became secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on parenting, deputy chairman of Labour Friends of Israel and a member of the health select committee.
He is proud to boast that he was born, raised and has always lived in the Bury South constituency he now represents. And, busy though his life was, he did find time to return to his studies briefly at Bury College, where he gained an A-level in politics.
He has been a prototype of so many New Labour initiatives. Had there been graduation-style ceremonies for school leavers - a la that proposed by Estelle Morris - he could have held up an impressive fist of O-levels, an A-level and creation of a successful charitable organisation by 19.
Lewis has a diffident streak which stops him boasting about his successes. "If someone wanted to do what I did I would encourage them but advise them to think carefully. Some people would regard me as a failure because I chose that route.
"We need a system that gives people core skills and links education, the world of work and the voluntary sector. We must enable them to emerge from education and learning with valid qualifications and to be well-rounded citizens," he says.
Connexions for 13 to 19-year-olds, modern apprenticeships, vocational GCSEs, alternative pathways through the academic and vocational mire. He sees it as a package for all young people regardless of ability or individual needs.
He and his wife Juliette have two children: Ben, aged six and Harry, five this week. And Lewis is asking himself now what sort of options he would want for them.