Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 October 2000

Which of these two men is the real education secretary? (not the one you think)

By Francis Beckett

Before the 1997 election Tony Blair announced on television that, under Labour, Chris Woodhead would keep his job as head of the school standards watchdog, Ofsted. That evening, David Blunkett, the party’s education spokesman, telephoned Roy Hattersley to assure him that the decision was not his; he didn’t even know it was going to happen.

By that time, Blair had studied an article in the Observer, published in December 1996 and headlined “Let Blair be his own education chief”. It began: “Tony Blair should take two posts in the next Labour government: prime minister and education secretary.” That way Blair would “make the plight of the nation’s youth a prime Whitehall concern”. There were precedents, the writer pointed out: Gladstone was his own chancellor, Salisbury handled imperial affairs, Churchill was his own war minister in 1940. If he did not want to take the title, Blair could at least control the substance of policy. Again there were precedents: Margaret Thatcher and foreign policy, John Major and Northern Ireland.

The author’s name was Andrew Adonis and Blair quickly arranged to meet this clever young journalist and academic. Adonis is now the Prime Minister’s education adviser, working in the Downing Street Policy Unit. In effect, he, not Blunkett, controls education policy.

Still only 37, Adonis is in some ways a younger version of Blair. Like the PM, he went to a fee-charging school, though Adonis’s school in Oxfordshire was not one of the elite institutions that are allowed to call themselves public schools.

Both went on to Oxford, where Adonis gained a First in modern history at Keble and a doctorate at Christ Church. Both settled in Islington, and Adonis still lives there: he was one of the governors of the George Orwell School who oversaw its change of name to Islington Arts and Media School and the disastrous appointment of a superhead, Torsten Friedag.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Both were marked out early as high-flyers. Adonis was an Oxford Fellow for three years and, for a time, a Liberal Democrat councillor in the city. Then, with no journalistic background, he became the public policy correspondent of the Financial Times in 1991, moving to the Observer in 1996.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

There, the education correspondent Martin Bright, who worked closely with him, found him “intelligent, principled, courteous to colleagues, always happy to share information, though rather more donnish than the average journalist”.

Blair and Adonis also share a passion for education, and a contempt for what they see as the old Labour ideologies standing in the way of improving (they would probably say modernising) Britain’s education system. “Education,” says Bright, “is Andrew’s obsession, and he’s genuine in his commitment to reforming the education system. Being the PM’s educational adviser would be his dream job, and I believe he has driven education policy ever since he got it.”

Adonis’s first coup was to convince the Prime Minister that he should bring in performance-related pay for teachers. He has not looked back since. In the early days of this government, David Blunkett was overheard complaining bitterly to one of his advisers: “Someone’s got to decide who’s running this thing.” Today he seems to realise that someone has decided, and the decision has not gone his way: he has recently been doing the rounds of newspaper offices, saying on the record that he thinks he’s done pretty well everything he can do at the Department for Education and after the election it will be time for a change; and, off the record, that Jack Straw is making a terrible mess of the Home Office and they need a safe pair of hands over there.

In his Observer article, Adonis wrote: “The sterile left-wing debate about abolishing successful schools – whether state or private – is over.” That did not prevent Adonis from contributing to it. He co-authored a book called A Class Act in which he argued for a selective system, with grammar schools for the brainiest, and other schools (no one calls them secondary moderns these days) for the rest.

At that time Blunkett was promising no selection, and Estelle Morris, who is now his schools minister, was an opponent of fee-charging schools. Last month Morris made the strongest speech in favour of fee-charging schools that any senior Labour figure has ever made. As for Blunkett, he soon modified his pledge: there would be no more selection but, in areas where the 11-plus still survived, it would remain. Parents, however, would get the chance to vote it out.

Yet he has not, in practice, been permitted to keep even this modest pledge. Although he has established a ballot system, it is so fiendishly complicated, and so weighted in favour of keeping selective schools, that the cost – in time, money and expertise – is beyond the reach of any voluntary group.

Blunkett rigged the electoral roll so that it included, where possible, parents whose children went to the grammar schools or were likely to do so; and excluded, where possible, the parents of children who went to the secondary moderns, or were likely to do so. It would have been more honest to announce that the government had changed its mind, and now supported the 11-plus.

At a recent conference question-and-answer session, Blunkett and Morris burbled about how they had decided not to make an issue of selection lest it “derail” the rest of their policy. They were visibly embarrassed at the mention of the Prime Minister’s speech the previous week, in which comprehensive schools were roundly condemned. Blunkett was privately furious about the speech. Neither he nor his ministers had been consulted, and he heard about it from the newspapers while on government business in Canada.

Blair’s main criticism was that comprehensives refuse to put pupils into ability sets. Yet according to a study published in 1997, by the third year of secondary schooling, 93.5 per cent of comprehensives use ability sets in two or more subjects, and 75 per cent in four or more subjects. We may safely assume that there has been no drift back to mixed-ability teaching since then.

So does Blair simply dislike comprehensive schools? We don’t know for certain; but we do know that the Prime Minister’s educational adviser dislikes them. It’s in his book.

At the Labour conference in Brighton, a Labour MP told Adonis that condemnation of comprehensives (which are attended by some 90 per cent of the nation’s 11- to 16-year-olds) was unhelpful. “That’s not what the focus groups say,” was the reply.

There is one policy area where Blunkett seems, on the face of it, to have won. Adonis wants the posher universities to be allowed to charge extra-high fees, in addition to the tuition fees that all universities now charge. He has openly encouraged the vice-chancellors to press for them. Blunkett and his higher education minister, Baroness (Tessa) Blackstone, are passionately opposed, believing that this would create a two-tier system – ivy-covered universities for the rich, concrete former polys for the poor. Blunkett has won so far but, nothing if not a realist, he points out: “I won’t be Education Secretary for ever.”

Indeed not. If he has his way, he won’t be Education Secretary this time next year (assuming there has been a spring election). It is not only Adonis’s influence which humiliates him, but also that of the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead.

Early in the life of the government, Woodhead confided, to someone with whom he then worked closely, his contempt for the intellectual qualities of all the education ministers. There was one significant exception: Stephen Byers, Morris’s predecessor in the schools brief. Byers, like Adonis, is definitely One Of Us in the Blair court. Blunkett and the other education ministers, however hard they try, still have about them an aura of the old Labour types they once were.

“There’s an evident tension between Blunkett and Woodhead,” says someone who has watched them together many times. “It’s always genteelly disguised, but it’s obvious when serious discussions are going on about the direction of policy. There’s tension even between Woodhead and Estelle Morris, who tried hard to make friends with him.”

Woodhead doesn’t need Morris or her colleagues – he has more powerful friends. The extent to which this public servant can publicly deride the most cherished ideas of his supposed political masters is extraordinary.

Not so long ago, Blunkett celebrated this year’s A-level results, furiously rebutting the Conservatives, who sneered that A-levels are getting easier. Into this political maelstrom strolls a tanned and relaxed Woodhead. He’s just back from his holiday, he says, so forgive him if he’s a little out of touch, but of course the only reason we have good results is that A-levels are getting easier, and it’s time the government put some rigour into them.

The recently appointed minister for lifelong learning, Malcolm Wicks, is passionate about education for older people, and started a competition to find Britain’s oldest learner (the winner was 107). When Wicks presented the award, the headlines were grabbed by Woodhead making fun of the whole idea. Wicks nailed a ghastly smile to his face as he assured me that he really didn’t mind.

Do ministers want mass higher education? Woodhead pours scorn on the idea. Are ministers insisting that British university degrees are academically rigorous? Woodhead tells the press airily that many of them are “vacuous”.

There was one glorious moment when Blunkett thought he might win. The Observer alleged that Woodhead might have had an affair with a pupil while he was a teacher. (Woodhead admitted only to a relationship after the girl had left school.) An anonymous spokesman for Blunkett told the paper that the chief inspector’s days could be numbered.

But the next day Blunkett himself was quoted backing Woodhead. It is likely that the two statements were separated by an awkward interview with the Prime Minister’s educational adviser, who is known to have been active in protecting Woodhead.

Blunkett wants to be rid of Woodhead, not just because he is tired of being humiliated, but because he knows that it would be a cheap and effective way of raising the morale of the teaching profession. Instead, he is forced to hand Woodhead more and more power. Woodhead has already managed to get the right to inspect further education colleges as well as schools; now he is angling for the job of inspecting universities as well.

He sounds as though he thinks he’s going to get it, and we, like Blunkett, must assume that he knows something we don’t; for he, unlike Blunkett, has the full confidence of Andrew Adonis, the man who, with some justice, may be called the real Secretary of State for Education.