So who's the bloke behind the desk? I'll tell you. He's the man responsible for my son's education. And for some of the worst schools in the country. So I've got one or two questions for Mr Sawyer...

The Deborah Ross Interview
  • @deborahross
Right, at last, I'm due to meet Derek Sawyer, leader of Islington Council, which I'm sure will be of great interest to everybody, but especially me. Not that I have a personal agenda or anything. I could never be so pathetically unprofessional. It's just that I live in this borough, this supposed beacon of New Labour which, actually, has the highest council tax in London - second highest in the country - yet possibly the poorest services.

Indeed, the secondary schools are so scarily bad that most parents would prefer their children to stay at home playing unattended eye surgeons with the bread knife rather than attend one. And, now, they're proposing a whole raft of new cuts, not just to the education service (no more hot school dinners, for example!) but also to most other services, too - libraries with reduced hours, reduced hours at the swimming-pool I use daily, the closure of our local recreation centre... As I said, it's not as though I have a particular interest, or am motivated by any kind of selfish rage.

Plus, as it happens, my own son is doing rather well in his Islington primary school. "How old will I be in 1914?" he asked just the other day. Such precocity put me on the spot rather, as you can imagine. "Ask your father," I had to tell him. "I've never been any good at maths."

Anyway, into Islington Town Hall on Upper Street, perhaps the borough's most fashionable street, with its New Labour eateries - Tony Blair's favourite, Granita, is sited here - and its endless shops selling glitteringly expensive Dualit toasters which most affluent Islingtonians seem to consider worth the money, though, if pressed, find it quite hard to explain why. It must be a kind of instinctive thing.

The Town Hall itself is a quite magnificent twenties building with a grand central staircase (used, apparently, in the TV series This Life for the final wedding scene) and fabulous domed, carved ceilings that make the cornicing in my own Victorian terraced job - of which I have always been inordinately proud - look pretty stupid and rubbish.

Disappointingly, though, Mr Sawyer's own office turns out to be quite a drab, beige, Dralon affair. I don't think Mr Sawyer is, in fact, the showy or flamboyant type. He is the son of a shoe manufacturer. His other job is as a librarian, in the Oriental and Indian Office Collection of the British Library. He likes Inspector Morse on the telly, Agatha Christie books, Arsenal and, now, Tinky Winky. His two-year-old son Philip, he explains, "seems to have seized control of the video machine, so I have to watch a lot of Teletubby videos. Tinky Winky is my favourite, yes."

He has been a Labour councillor in Islington since 1982, and leader since 1997. Mr Sawyer is 49 and quite a well built fellow with one of those Leonard Rossiter hairdos. You know; it looks as though it's been dumped on at the very last minute. More disarmingly, though, the left side of his face seems to be very puffed up, making him look less horrid local politician, and more sweet hamster who is saving a few seeds in his cheek in case he feels peckish later.

He explains he's got an abscess under a tooth, and has just come from the dentist. It's been agony, he says. Last night he didn't so much sleep, as drift in and out of the pain. I say I sympathise. I've been there myself. And, ouch, it really does hurt. It's something you feel you could die of. Still, "Pecker up! Worst things have happened at sea! Get a grip, man!" It would be a mistake, I think, for us to bond too entirely. I must remember to keep in touch with my rage.

We go through all the niceties. Whereabouts in the borough do I live, he wants to know. I say I live in the furthest north, am only hanging on by my fingertips, in fact, because the next street up is Haringey. Still, it's OK being on the border, because there you can get away with having an Argos toaster with un-hip squirrels and acorns on it rather than the Dualit one, although, that said, if someone pops in unexpectedly it's probably still wise to throw a tea-towel over it.

He laughs loudly. He has quite a big, easy, robust laugh. But he then says that this, in fact, is the most irritating misconception about Islington. There are fashionable pockets, yes. Canonbury, Barnsbury, Highbury, Upper Street. "But it's not all sun-dried tomatoes and Italian bread. The borough is actually the 14th poorest in the country, and some of the wards are the poorest wards in the country."

I say no wonder so many of the richer people go about in four-wheel drives with bull bars. It's to run them over! He laughs richly again, but thinks it may not be entirely true. I think I may be failing quite badly at trying not to like him at this point.

He does, I must say, seem to be a genuinely decent man. He grew up in Africa, which is where his father took his shoe business after the war. "More cows there, so more leather." His social conscience, he says, began to prickle in Tanzania, where he was dispatched to a segregated, whites- only school, and heard ex-pats saying things to each other like: "Of course, one can't like Louis Armstrong. He's black."

He returned to this country aged 10 and first tried to join the Labour Party at 16. "But it was closed." Closed? "Yes. Well, at least the Stockport branch was. I went along, all enthusiastic, but the sign on the door said `closed'. So I didn't in fact join until I was 26." He became a councillor, he says, because "I wanted to be involved in politics at a level that made a real difference to people's lives".

He has, he insists, no yearning for national politics. The British Library and the council are sufficient. Plus there is Philip, of course, and his wife Sheila. He is only recently married, and doesn't think there will be any more children. "We are rather elderly parents as it is."

But, now, on to the hard stuff. I can do the hard stuff, you know, when I'm not too busy being a big, fat coward dreaming of a nice job on Woman's Own. Mr Sawyer, I ask, could you send your son to any of the Islington secondary schools? As it happens, I continue, I am very happy with my six-year-old's primary school, but I can already see the drift starting to happen, that exodus of, yes, the mostly middle-class parents who fear what is going to happen at 11.

Some shuttle their kids up to private jobs in Hampstead or Highgate. Some manage to blag their way into better schools in better boroughs. Others, like the Blairs, or even Islington's own chief education officer, Rupert Perry, who has two daughters at Greycoats in Westminster, go down the selective route, while protesting that this doesn't make them any less socialist. (After all, selective schools are available to anyone who's selected.) Forty-two per cent of parents now educate their children outside the borough's schools. And who, frankly, can blame them?

Islington's GCSE score is 20 per cent below the national average. Across the borough's nine secondary schools, the percentage of children achieving five GCSE A to C grades is just 23.3. At the school my son should go to at 11 - the nearby George Orwell - it's 10 per cent.

Ten per cent! I am genuinely, spectacularly rubbish at maths, but even I can work out that this means 90 per cent leave with what? A single GCSE, Grade E, in face-painting? Frankly, Mr Sawyer, I could no more send my son there than I could leave him at home, unattended, to play eye surgeons not only with the bread knife, but also a bottle of Ajax and some drawing- pins. Plus, as it happens, it is your local school, as well. Hand on heart, could you send Philip there?

He says the school is, in fact, due to close down in the summer, reopening in the autumn as The Islington Arts and Media College with new teachers, and a new head. Yes, the school will still be for 11-18-year-olds. Yes, it will still offer the national curriculum, as it must. But it will also offer "specialised classes in arts and media". I say this sounds like a PR exercise to me. He insists, no, "the new head is inspirational". He adds: "I am confident that Philip will go there in nine years' time, and have told the head I expect that."

But what if you had to send Philip now? "There wouldn't be any point, as it's closing in the summer."

OK, what if Philip had been 11 last year. Would you have sent him to George Orwell then? "I refuse to answer questions that go back in time. I don't think I'm going to say any more." Enough said? I think so. How, anyway, have the secondary schools got into such a state? He says that the explanation is largely historical. When the borough took over the schools from ILEA in 1990, they were in pretty much of a mess.

"But because ILEA covered the whole of London, it wasn't noticed." He adds that, because of the particular way the boundaries were drawn, Islington failed to inherit "one super-school, to keep the others up to scratch, like most other boroughs".

How, I ask, do you intend to woo back the middle classes? "The important thing is that schools can change. Headteachers make a difference. Teachers make a difference. One of the things we have done is have scrutiny panels, which look in detail at particular areas. We did one on educational achievement, and the main thing we proved is that schools make a difference." To the children who go there? "Yes." And you needed a scrutiny panel to tell you this?

This sort of thing must be part of the problem, surely. They have even, recently, set up a "Citizens' Panel" of 1,000 randomly chosen residents, so we can all have our say on the latest round of proposed pounds 40m cuts. I am, yes, on this panel, which involved a rather dim woman from Mori loitering in my hallway, without once bothering to admire the cornicing, and asking me things like: "Where would you prefer to see the cuts made? To education or to old people." There was, of course, no facility to respond with a "neither".

I don't doubt that Mori is an expensive outfit, but can you really learn anything from this sort of thing, Mr Sawyer? "Yes. For example, we learnt that 61 per cent didn't want the council tax to go up, but 51 per cent said they didn't want the council tax to go down if it meant more cuts, so the message is, we've got the tax exactly right."

But, I cry, that's nonsense! I said I didn't want the council tax to go down if it meant more cuts, not because I thought the tax was right, but because I thought the services just couldn't take more cuts! Admit it, Mr Sawyer, it's just a phoney attempt to make people think they're somehow involved in the democratic process. "No! No! Absolutely not," he cries in reply. He is hurt by my assertion. But this, of course, does not make it any less true.

Naturally, Mr Sawyer provides lots of reasons why the council is in the pickle it's in, and why it charges so much for so little. It has a large debt (pounds 800m) to pay off, resulting mainly from investing too much in council housing in the Eighties, in the expectation that Labour would win the 1987 election and bail them out. Compulsive, competitive tendering under the Tories meant cheaper services, but not ones that were necessarily any good.

But, I say, isn't there also a problem with the way the council goes about things? The endless restructuring without any real redundancies? A general ineptness? The endless bureaucracy? Indeed, at my son's school we've been trying for four years to replace the five steps at the front of the infant bit with a ramp, to make life easier for mothers with small children and buggies.

It's a tiny thing, I know. Yet each time someone takes this project on, they give up exhausted, worn out by having to trail though department after department. It's ludicrous.

"It is, yes, and I agree it must be possible," he says. "We are trying to be less departmentalistic. I shall look into this personally for you." To repeat, I'm not on any kind of self-interested mission here. But, still, hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!