Open Eye: opening up OU gave Minister `a wider vision of society'

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The Independent Online
Moderate in politics but outspoken on social issues, OU graduate John McFall is said to havebeen first to dub Margaret Thatcher the `dinner snatcher' over the withdrawal of provision of free school meals.

A former teacher who maintains an active interest in education, he is now Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and MP for Dumbarton.

What was your family background?

I was born in Dumbarton. My parents had a newsagents shop, so I was an entrepreneur from an early age. After I left school I travelled - I worked in factories in Scotland, London and Dublin. I eventually came back to Dumbarton because of family responsibilities.

What was your earliest ambition?

To play football for one of the top teams, and to go out with girls.

How were your school years?

I went to the local school, but left as soon as I could, at 15. School didn't do anything at all for me, I was looking for other things.

What was your first job and how much did you earn?

After I left school I worked as a labourer for the parks department in Dumbarton. I earned about pounds 4 a week.

What made you start studying with the OU?

When I was about 22 or 23 I decided I wanted to educate myself. I felt there was a liberating element about education.

My first degree was done at Strathclyde University, in science, but it had given me a lifelong interest in education.

I wanted to complement it with an degree in arts/philosophy because I felt I was lacking in those areas.

The OU provided that for me. I joined in about 1977 and did social sciences, psychology, and philosophy of education.

What difference has the OU made?

It has given me a wider vision of society. That vision - allied to my interest in politics - helped me develop a deeper interest in the fundamental issues which affect society.

And I felt the only way to tackle things was by taking an active role. You could say the OU played an indirect part in my going into politics.

I think it is one of the finest academic institutions I have ever been involved with.

The preparation, the curriculum, the discipline people have to have to get their work done, is excellent. It is also the most flexible, adaptable model of education you can get, fitting in with people's lives.

What does your current job involve?

Minister for education, health and social services, and training and employment.

How did you get it?

After my OU course I went on to do an MBA, not at the OU, because it wasn't possible at that time. Then I was elected as MP for Dumbarton in 1987. I became a minister in 1997 when the Labour government was formed.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I enjoy meeting people, visiting communities and witnessing the commitment to endeavour people have towards common goals in their community.

...and least?

The travelling. And the ministerial boxes.

Would you do more OU study? If so, what?

I'd like to do a law degree with the OU. But I don't have the spare time at the moment.

To what do you attribute your success?

To the support of other people, particularly my family, and the confidence I have been able to bring to my work as a result of this.

What do you most regret (if anything)?

Not going into higher education earlier in life.

What are your goals for the future?

I suppose - finding time to do my OU law degree!

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who was willing to help people achieve their aspirations.