NS Interview - David Miliband

The minister for schools says "I'd want to send my kids to a state school''. What does this odd choi

We arrive at Leeds railway station, but the car is not there. The private secretary gets straight on the phone to HQ. We have three schools to visit and two meetings to attend. There is no time to waste. David Miliband starts walking. He walks very, very fast. I struggle to keep up. I console myself that the wheat was long ago separated from the chaff. People like him do just walk very fast. People like him hate being late.

As we sweep in to the grounds, past the football pitches, the great and the good of Roundhay School have lined up to greet him. Hands are shaken, firmly and precisely. The man doing the talking here is the man from the bank. N M Rothschild, the City investment house, has pledged £500,000 to improve science and maths teaching in 15 local schools by bringing in teachers from the university. Miliband watches the presentation but is eager to see the lessons. Nervous smiles all round. He perches himself on the corner of a table in a year-seven class and watches a physics postgraduate explain the relationship between trajectory, speed and gravity (or something like that) by tossing a pancake. The guest of honour asks a child what it is like to be taught by a different teacher. "I'm not bothered," he replies. The smiles become more nervous. In the next room, a professor of logic shows the class that the sum of the faces and vertices of an object is twice the sum of the edges (I think). Miliband says he never knew that, thanks his hosts and sweeps out of the building.

He says that in his 18 months in the job, he has visited roughly 70 schools. He reckons that now he can sniff straight away what a place is really like. Each tour takes weeks to organise, but he insisted this one should include his old primary school. One of his teachers, his PE instructor, is still there. They greet, warmly but slightly awkwardly. Both try hard to remember more about the other. Miliband lived in Leeds between the ages of seven and 12 but hasn't kept up with anyone. Still, he remembers his time fondly, telling a group of kids in the canteen of a trip to Belgium with the school football team. He was goalkeeper. His other claim to fame, he confesses, was playing a tree in the Christmas panto.

He was handed one of the toughest ministerial offices less than a year after entering parliament, provoking a new spate of "next-leader-but-one" stories in the media. Like many at Westminster, Miliband thinks of life after Tony Blair, even after Gordon Brown. He is careful, however, to count the young Brownites (the likes of Ruth Kelly, Ed Balls and Balls's wife, Yvette Cooper) among many contenders for the throne. This group does not bear the scars of opposition that have so deeply marked the Blair/Brown generation. Miliband has taken to ministerial life. His dealings with officialdom are courteous and correct. He is as much pre-Blair as post-Blair. He tries at least twice a month to see his wife, Louise, a violinist, perform with the London Symphony Orchestra. With his impeccable gait, pinstriped suit, impossibly shiny shoes, his are modern values in a traditional setting.

We had met before 8am at King's Cross. "Teacher is taking you on an outing," he announces, as he marches down platform one, handing me my ticket. In an hour, over grapefruit and scrambled eggs, we do specialist schools, academies, primary schools, private schools, Blair, top-up fees, war, media, the Labour Party, more Blair, social mobility, inequality and social democracy.

"We've got a mature model of what it takes to run a good school," he says. "Leadership, money, legal and financial flexibility, but also an intelligent accountability process so we catch it when it doesn't go right. We must refuse to accept that poverty means you can't get a good school. The truth is that for a long time what was unacceptable was accepted." Choice, he says, is both an end in itself and a means to an end of improving standards. Choice of subjects at schools is as important as choice between schools, he says.

What of the Diane Abbott syndrome? Would he ever go private? Civil servants told him he was the first schools minister to have gone to a comprehensive - Haverstock in north London. His father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, would not have had it any other way, but neither would he have put up with any slouching. "I'd want to send my kids to a state school. Nobody should set themselves up as a hero in these matters. When the diversity of comprehensive schooling is combined with commitment to high standards, it produces a fantastic buzz." I note his choice of words. Did "I'd want to" mean that he definitely would? "You don't know what your circumstances are going to be. You've got to talk to your wife. I'd be very surprised if we sent our child to a private school. It's easy to posture and say never . . . what you should never do is condemn other people for doing it and then do it yourself . . ."

Miliband wants to achieve a situation where people would be "fighting to get out of the private sector and into the state sector". He says the impact of "middle-class flight" from the state sector is exaggerated. "There is a degree of determinism that says only middle-class parents make a school aspirational. In some of the poorest communities, what lots of parents want more than anything else is for their children not to lead the lives they did. They don't know how to deliver a great education themselves, but come hell or high water, they want their school to do it." He is proud, he says, that some of the weakest schools in the country are the ones improving most quickly.

He admits that it is some feat for the government to have united the Labour Party and Middle England in opposition to top-up fees. He insists it is a "progressive charge", but adds, "We have failed to convince people that it has such a quality." He concedes that along the way both the Department for Education and Downing Street got it badly wrong. It was sold for a mixture of reasons - the funding crisis, the need to expand education - but not with much confidence or conviction. The redistributive case has not been made. "People don't know why we're doing it. It is quite hard to explain to people that a charging regime will actually expand opportunity." The UK has the fifth-highest dropout rate among developed nations for students at age 16. "Something we've learnt . . . is that you've got to explain to people what the problems are before you propose solutions."

He switches from the specific to the big picture. This, after all, is what he spent years doing as Blair's head of policy. "What is the big political issue for Britain at the moment? Without wishing to sound portentous, it is about whether we can build a social democratic settlement, whether we can lay the political and cultural foundations for the next several years."

This is the abiding frustration of Blairites, who ask themselves - at least as much as others ask them - what they have to show for their six and a half years in power. Miliband is eager to talk about it. Sweden, he says, is his model for putting together "a coalition that can govern for 70 out of 80 years. You've got to have a coalition for reform, in government, unions, business, media, think-tanks, academia, civil society. You've got to have a real sense of com-munities that have a distinct agenda. You've got to talk to people, you've got to agree a vision and only then set out a route map to deliver that vision." New Labour, he says, has spent too much time being technocratic. "The success of our next 18 months will depend on putting together this coalition, not just the policy package."

He talks of "renewing the government", but then again so does everyone connected with it. He recalls the Robert Redford film The Candidate. The victorious senator goes up to his hotel room after his victory speech and confides to his aides: "What do we do now?" That, Miliband says, is how this Labour government feels. Surely he is not pushing the comparison with Tony Blair? After all, the character that Redford plays has turned into the smarmy politician Blair vowed never to become.

He believes the government has suffered from the absence of an ideological compass. This is not, as others around Blair would argue, an obsession of the chattering classes. "Governments only get re-elected in the end when they win the battle of ideas. We are digging ourselves out of a Conservative century and we are trying to build a social democratic settlement." He comes back to Sweden. "They called their system the People's Home. If you said that in this country, people would think you were being ridiculous."

There is something endearingly timeless about his politics. I suggest that, unlike many around Blair circa 1997, Miliband could not have been accused of trying to be fashionable. "I don't think I've ever been accused of being faddish," he says. "I'm more Marks & Spencer than Ted Baker."