On a crusade with the new man at the ministry

Stephen Timms is known as a safe pair of hands. He'll need to live up to his reputation as he takes charge of the Education Bill, says Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

He had a reputation for being a safe pair of hands when he arrived at the Department of Education and Skills immediately after the general election.

Now Stephen Timms, the Minister of State for School Standards, has Tony Blair's whole world in his hands as he attempts to steer the Prime Minister's cherished White Paper on education into legislation and on to the statute books. He will also face battles with the teachers' unions as he forges ahead with controversial plans such as new league tables for national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds and giving private companies the right to manage state schools.

The 46-year-old Labour MP for East Ham, was described by a parliamentary sketch writer as "as earnest a figure as can ever have stood at the Dispatch Box: worthiness has found its embodiment in his shrugging, angular frame" when he fronted for the Government as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the previous administration.

Pundits say, however, that he has become more assured with every appearance in the House of Commons and was spotted by the powers that be as worthy of promotion.

That reputation may have taken a bit of a dent in the eyes of teachers' leaders with his performance during his first four months in office. His comment that schools would have the teachers they needed by the start of the new academic year, made at the time of the Professional Association of Teachers' conference at the end of the summer term, provoked outrage that he was being complacent over the extent of teacher shortages.

An earlier remark he made in the course of an interview with the Financial Times that schools would be free to put individual subject departments in the hands of private companies provoked alarm from teachers' leaders. They feared that the Government was not only "thinking the unthinkable" but also the unworkable in its pursuit of a private sector solution to the problems of the public services.

Back at Sanctuary Buildings, the headquarters of the Department of Education and Skills, he was at pains to play down the extent to which the private sector would provide the answer to the ills of the state education service.

"We were elected to deliver substantial change for the better in our public services," he says. "We've also set aside very substantial resources from our public spending review so we can give significant extra investment to education. People need to see that this extra investment is being turned into real improvements and to see what's happening. That means we must apply whatever levers schools need to achieve the improvements in standards and performance.

"We want our best performing schools to work with other schools to help those other schools to raise standards. We want schools to work more closely with further education colleges to help those pupils who will benefit from it to pursue a more vocational route in education. We want them to work with voluntary sector or faith organisations and – when it is appropriate – with the private sector." Note the priority given to each solution. Stephen Timms takes care to make sure the private sector is the last solution advocated. The impression gained from earlier statements, emanating mainly from No 10, might have been that it was the preferred option. Asked if the private sector is a panacea to the nation's education ills, he replies: "No, certainly that's never been my intention nor the Government's intention."

He is equally circumspect on teacher shortages. Gone is the gung ho statement that schools will have the teachers they need; instead he gives a more cautious line that disruption is likely to be avoided.

"I've also made it plain that this has been a difficult time for recruitment in quite a number of schools in quite a number of areas in the country," he says. "Heads have had to be very resourceful and have been carrying on working on recruitment strategies for their schools up until now – right through the summer holidays.

"So the pressures are very real and I've never attempted to minimise them. I don't want to do so now but what I was trying to say is that progress has been made in dealing with a number of the vacancies. It remains my view that we're not going to see large numbers of schools with teaching being disrupted in the autumn term."

So the "safe pair of hands" has returned and will be needed over the coming months if Tony Blair is to keep his Government's reputation for improving the education service intact.

Stephen Timms has a real opportunity to shine because the White Paper is the key reforming legislation of the Blair second term. As one colleague put it: "If he solved the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, he would really make his mark as a minister."

However, some doubt whether he will be tough enough. "The trouble with Stephen is he's a Christian. I don't mean that he shouldn't be but he tends to see the best in people," says one education source. "He would do well to remember that there are civil servants who might thwart what he wants to achieve."

Formerly a telecommunications consultant, Stephen Timms established a reputation as a tough no-nonsense leader on Newham Council in East London before being elevated to ministerial status in the House of Commons. He battled hard for the siting of the international rail terminal at Stratford to boost employment prospects for his constituents in the face of opposition from at least one neighbouring MP who described the proposal as "lunatic".

Those years on Newham Council meant representing one of the most deprived areas of the country and struggling in the early years to overcome internal party rivalries to get things done. Some observers believe that dealing with civil servants could be a doddle after that.

Stephen Timms, who is married (his wife is a project worker for the homeless who comes originally from Singapore), likes to spend his spare time relaxing. Cycling and walking are listed as two of his main hobbies – these are pastimes that will give him plenty of time to reflect on how to deal with the battles ahead.

He has had little specific involvement in education during his earlier political life although he is still a governor at one of the schools in his constituency.

His mother, however, is a former comprehensive school teacher, and can keep him on his toes as he takes responsibility for the nation's schools. "She has been very supportive, very encouraging," he says.

One colleague describes him as "not the sort of person you want to go to the pub with if you want an evening of fun". But perhaps that is not such an important attribute to be lacking in his present job.

Most observers quoted in Roth's Parliamentary companion, the specialist booklet for irreverent profiles of MPs, pay tribute to his dedication and earnestness in pursuit of his job. Even the colleague who made the comment about his lack of fun was forced to admit: "He's a bright lad."

And maybe, as the Blair Government struggles to overcome teacher shortages and deliver on its education reform, being a bright lad will count for more now that he's the man in charge of the nation's schools.