David Cameron: Tories' man wipes the slate

David Cameron has more on his mind than becoming Conservative leader. He is working hard to rewrite the party's education manifesto - starting with its opposition to top-up fees. Richard Garner hears why

You might think a man identified with the public school system and the famous Notting Hill group of Tory reformers would be too effete to be successful in today's political rough and tumble. But the party's education spokesman is a contradictory character, big on rigour as well as being compassionate and sensible about special education.

His supporters see a charismatic young leader (he is 38) determined to set his party on a new course that will make it electable before the end of the decade.

As shadow education spokesman, he is engaged in some radical tearing up of the Tory manifesto. The most momentous change is his plan to scrap the party's opposition to tuition fees. He also wants to downplay the Tories' commitment to parental choice in favour of more "rigour" in the examination and testing system.

Cameron knows he has a tough job fashioning a credible education policy for the Conservatives in the wake of their third successive election defeat. Sensibly he has singled out higher education for "major review".

The party went into the last election on a platform of scrapping all tuition fees, a position that earned it ridicule on the grounds that it appeared opportunistic and quintessentially unTory. Isn't it a good idea for students to contribute something to the cost of their higher education?

In a statement which appears to signal a return to the era of Kenneth Baker, who brought in student loans at the start of the 1990s, Cameron said it was right that students should have to make a contribution to the cost of their courses. He doesn't want to give away too much about what the Conservatives are planning but makes it clear that a big U-turn is on the way.

"I want to have excellent universities which are going to take on the best in the world," he says. "I want no cap on young people's aspirations. People should be free to make the choice they want to about pursuing higher education. You can't achieve that without some form of co-payment."

It was attractive for the Conservatives to promise students at the last election that they would not have to pay fees, he admits. However, top-up fees will have been in operation for at least three years by the time of the next election, he says, so they will have become an accepted feature of the higher education landscape. And if the Conservatives were to keep their pledge to scrap them, it would leave a gaping hole in universities' finances, he adds.

On the morning of my interview he has been meeting students on Teach First, the American-style scheme which aims to lure the brightest undergraduates into teaching. He is bursting with enthusiasm for it.

"It talks about inspiring young minds and imparting knowledge," he gushes. "It's inspirational compared with how the General Teaching Council describes teaching. They [the GTC] are unbelievably woolly."

This enthusiasm for a scheme introduced by Labour is unexpected. But as an Old Etonian with a stockbroker dad, Cameron must be keen to show street cred. He is adamant that his schooling at Eton is no barrier to his understanding the state education system.

His criticism of Labour centres on the "waste" of money of what he terms the "Alphabetti Spaghetti" of quangos responsible for running different parts of the education service. And the GTC - responsible for regulating the profession and ruling on cases of teachers accused of bringing it into disrepute - is a prime target.

Cameron argues that it is nowhere as effective as Teach First at promoting teaching. Teach First tries to entice the brightest young people into London's most deprived schools by offering them a crash course in teaching - rather than a year's PGCE course - in exchange for committing themselves to the job for two years.

"Virtually none of them would have come into teaching if it hadn't been for this scheme," he says. "They're going to do a pilot in Manchester but this is the kind of thing they should be doing throughout the country."

Why is Cameron enthusing about a programme introduced by Labour? The answer is that he is saying what he thinks. He knows that producing thoughtful policies is much more attractive to the electorate than knee-jerk opposition.

Because he concedes that the Government is doing some things right, you have to take him seriously when he starts criticising Labour. The GTC crops up again. "What has it ever achieved?" he asks - in the manner of John Cleese in Life of Brian asking what the Romans ever did for us. "Or am I being unfair?" he asks.

Cameron has three buzzwords to sum up his ambitions in education: rigour ("we must return to the R-word"), autonomy and choice. He favours stressing rigour and autonomy. Choice is less important.

That stance is criticised by Tory right-wingers who complain that he is emphasising government as the engine of change. Cameron denies the charge.

He is highly critical of the Government's erstwhile espousal of the idea of earned autonomy for schools (giving them the freedom to opt out of the national curriculum if they have proved to be successful). That is a concept Labour has quietly dropped, he says.

The shadow Education Secretary would like to give schools more freedom to control their own affairs. Although he supports academies - the Government's flagship programme to breathe new life into urban education by creating 200 privately sponsored schools - he believes that they have not been given enough freedom.

As someone who was rigorously educated himself, Cameron would like to see more rigorous exams and tests and has little time for many of the proposals of the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson in his inquiry into 14 to 19 education. Tomlinson called for an overarching diploma to replace GCSEs and A-levels. Cameron would like more rigour in the existing system.

"Tomlinson was trying to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people," he says. "It lacks simplicity and clarity and [that buzzword again] rigour. I'm not convinced Tomlinson in full would deliver.

"The biggest problem is that I don't think this Government are getting to grips with what needs to be done in education. We keep getting announcements in the Sunday newspapers of this or that flagship scheme but very little substance.

"They say they are improving literacy and numeracy standards and discipline - but they aren't. There are still one in five children leaving primary school unable to read, write or add up."

Critics claim Cameron's leadership ambitions have eaten into the time he has spent on his education brief. However, he cites articles in national newspapers as evidence that he is not ignoring the subject. And if there is one area in which he has made a mark, it is in special education. He is widely credited with helping to shift opinion away from the idea of integrating special-needs children into mainstream schools at all costs. His views are based on his experience of trying to find a school place for his three-year-old son who has cerebral palsy.

Cameron has probed the Government over special-school closures - there have been around 100 since Labour came to power in 1997 - although ministers claim the rate has slowed since the last Conservative government.

The way ahead has been shown by a school in his West Oxfordshire constituency, Springfield, he says. It is two schools shaped like a horseshoe, one mainstream, one special, enabling collaboration but with separate classes for those who need special help.

If he retains his brief, the education world could be in for interesting times. In the longer run, Cameron could just be the Conservatives answer to Tony Blair, someone who is prepared to think ideas through from first principles and to embrace reforms that have been unthinkable in the party for years.

The CV

Born: 1966

Educated: 1979-85 Eton College.

1985-88 Brasenose College, Oxford. Ist Class Honours in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Employment: 1988-92 Conservative Research Department, Head of Political Section.

1992-93 Special Adviser, Chancellor of the Exchequer. 1993-94 Special Adviser, Home Secretary.

1994-2001 Director of Corporate Affairs, Carlton Communications Ltd.

2001- MP for Witney.

Family: Married Samantha, creative director of a leather goods and stationery shop, in 1996. Two children, Ivan and Nancy. RG

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