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Teachers' pet

A new thinker at the helm of the 'Times Educational Supplement'? Hardly. David Walker reports
When Melanie Phillips, the Observer columnist, applied for the editorship of the Times Educational Supplement late last autumn, News International pulses started racing. In her book All Must Have Prizes, published last year, Ms Phillips had summed up her increasingly strident criticisms of the teaching profession and the educational establishment - she considers them largely responsible for the nation's intellectual and moral failings. Standards, back to basics, smashing the power of an entrenched profession - Ms Phillips's candidacy was immediately attractive to the hard-liners who edit Rupert Murdoch's daily papers, not least because they accord so well with the Murdoch line.

Some of Rupert Murdoch's editors - arise Sir Andrew Neil - have made a thing of their anti-establishment attitudes. Ms Phillips would have gladly joined their ranks. The trouble is that the TES actually is the educational establishment. Ms Phillips editing the profession's house journal, the very site of that cosy consensus she has been attacking with such vigour, was a prospect that would have had the weekly's staff quaking. A TES edited by Ms Phillips would certainly be exciting, but then so would a decision to put the fox in charge of the hen house.

The present editor, Pat Rowan, retires in April after long service to the paper, which she joined in 1972 and started to edit in 1989. Into the ring were thrown several in-house hats including those of TES staffer Bob Doe, former Sunday Times education editor Caroline St John-Brooks, The Times's education correspondent, John O'Leary, as well as that of Peter Wilby, ex-editor of the Independent on Sunday and former education specialist. All of them vastly experienced, all of them safe pairs of hand, none of them could be considered on the political or educational right wing.

None of them had Ms Phillips's ideological edge. But none of them had Ms Phillips's danger. "It is," says Phillip Crawley, MD of The Times's supplements, "one of the most profitable titles owned by Rupert Murdoch measured by amount of profit in relation to circulation. Our share of the market for schools jobs is well over 90 per cent." A separate edition with its own masthead and separate editorial material circulates in Scotland.

Compared with The Times and The Sunday Times, the supplements have been largely untouched by the Murdoch brush. The Tory sympathies of the Times Literary Supplement's editor, Ferdinand Mount, are noticeable but so, too, are the market pressures for the TLS to employ American academic feminists as reviewers. The TES and its junior companion, the Times Higher Education Supplement, have been immensely pragmatic in their politics, and immensely successful in attracting readers and advertisers.

Every Friday a large slice of a profession which rarely gets love and kisses from elsewhere in the Murdoch empire either buys the TES for themselves or see it in the staff room. Would teachers read a weekly which - if her views came to dominate its coverage - held them in such low regard? Ms Phillips promised a sudden end to the successful editorial formula pursued by Ms Rowan and her predecessors which would surely open the TES to commercial challenge and a haemorrhage of readers.

In the event, financial interest prevailed over ideology, lending support to the idea that Rupert Murdoch will be a political and ideological pluralist when the commercial conditions are right. The Murdoch machine did not choose Ms Phillips. The new editor of the TES is to be Caroline St John- Brooks, an education specialist who had just spent three years doing research for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

She will take over a Murdoch title which is not sensationalist, admires the work of the Institute of Education and even occasionally employs such notorious characters as Tim Brighouse, the Birmingham director of education, to write for it. The TES - which uses colour extensively now - is a sober publication where the old verities of accuracy and fairness are still held in high regard. Ms Rowan was, it was true, appointed after a personal interview with Murdoch; she sees him at budget meetings. "He has never, ever interfered with policy; I have not discussed with him stance of leaders. We look at everything from the point of view of what is good for education."

Teachers buy it for the jobs, but also for detailed sections on curriculum and research. During her tenure Ms Rowan has expanded coverage to the under-fives, school management and into further education. To a lay person the inner sections of the TES are full of baffling acronyms making its editor - as Ms Rowan says - "perform a balancing act being both an educationist and a journalist".

But what many teachers buy it for is friendship. A trio of major pieces of legislation, umpteen hours of parliamentary discussion, a national curriculum, new inspectors, local management of schools, unprecedented media attention - the education profession has had a turbulent time of late.

But amid all the changes, teachers have still been able each week to turn to what Ms Rowan calls "a critical friend". Here, despite all the change and the hostility, is a periodical with their interests at heart. Ms Rowan is a regular and welcome visitor to schools and colleges. The paper reflects controversies and encourages criticism, but its conversational style is en famille.

The relationship between the profession and the TES is founded on jobs. In May, when, like migrating birds, teachers are thinking of giving notice and moving on, pagination shoots up to more than 230 pages. In winter, when job ads are scarce, it drops to 32 pages. Either way the paper has become a professional must-see. Average circulation is about 130,000, well up on when Ms Rowan - on the staff since 1972 - took over from Stuart Maclure in the editor's chair seven years ago. It has been a winning act. Founded in 1910, the TES has seen off older competitors, such as The Teacher, the National Union of Teachers' paper, and Education magazine and seems little troubled by the national newspapers' attempts to muscle into the education jobs market.

Caroline St John-Brooks shares with Ms Phillips the fact that they were both once employed on the liberal New Society magazine. But there the similarity probably ends. With a PhD in education, Ms St John-Brooks comes from deep within the professional world, though she saw service in the journalistic front line working for Andrew Neill on The Sunday Times. She says the fierceness of recent discussion about education policy means "it's a marvellous time to be taking over such a successful newspaper - it's also nice being back in newspapers after being a fonctionnaire". It sounds like the educational establishment's organ is going to be in safe hands - and the TES's market dominance undisturbed.