Alan Johnson: You ask the questions

The Education Secretary answers your questions, such as 'Do you still think it was a good idea to invade Iraq' and 'Are you really as vain as you look?'
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You seem to have risen without trace. Who are you? GEORGE CONDON, Leatherhead

Ex-postman; ex-trade union leader; MP for Hull West and Hessle since 1997; government minister since 1999; former secretary of state for work and pensions; former secretary of state for trade and industry and now Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Sorry for creeping up on you like that.

Why didn't you stand your ground on quotas for faith schools when the bishops rose up in protest? SJ FOLKERS, by e-mail

Because the two main faiths agreed to a voluntary solution and we've begun a fruitful dialogue with all the faiths about what more we can do. We reached consensus on a far more sound legislative change placing a new duty on school governing bodies to promote, and a power for Ofsted to inspect for, community cohesion. This is now law and applies to all schools for all schools, new and existing, faith and non-faith. In my view a much better outcome.

Why does my five-year-old son have to endure being taught in an undersized, stuffy, smelly, under-equipped room with 29 other children? JOHN BEHETS, Queen's Park, London

Don't know about your child's particular school but before 1997 a million 5, 6 and 7-year-olds were stuck in classes over 30. We've tackled that problem and today we are announcing the start of a 15-year, £7bn programme, to rebuild, revamp and remodel 8,000 primary and primary special schools - taking the 900 schools in the worst condition out of use. We're also rebuilding or refurbishing every second school in the country in a £35bn capital investment programme. When we came into power only £600m was being invested in school buildings.

Where is the logic in raising the leaving age for compulsory education/training, raising the age for buying cigarettes and giving 16-year-olds the vote? RUPERT FAST, Esher, Surrey.

I've suggested that we might raise the education leaving age to 18 because I think it's important that we give all young people the chance to gain the skills they need to succeed in life. This doesn't mean young people being forced to stay at school; it could mean they are in apprenticeships, or working in a job with training. The other two issues are not on the Government's agenda.

Did it feel odd to be made Education Secretary when you have no O or A-levels and have never been to university? WILL STAPLETON, Ely

No - why, should it have done?

Are you in favour of proportional representation? James O Hagan, Belfast

Yes, but I recognise that many in my party aren't. Turnout at elections is falling, making it vital that we do more to engage people in politics and debate. Voting reform is one way of doing that but I don't think it's the only way and any reforms must be agreed by the party and then the people in a referendum. The most important issue now is to make sure that mainstream political debate captures some of the passion behind campaigns such as Make Poverty History.

Would it not be compatible with the principles of both the free market and the Labour Party if charitable status were removed from private education? MICHAEL ROSENTHAL, Banbury, Essex

The Charities Act will, for the first time, require all educational organisations claiming charitable status to demonstrate their public benefit. As a result I expect to see private schools work more closely with the state sector, sharing facilities and expertise so that the greater resources of private schools help to improve the life chances of all children in their communities.

Why did you bottle out of running for leader of the Labour Party? KIERAN MCINTOSH, Sheffield

To "bottle out" you have to first "bottle in". I made it clear six months ago that I was interested in the deputy leadership. To stand for leader one has to be convinced that you would be the best candidate. I don't think I would be.

As a former CWU member, why have you shifted to an anti-trade union stance? STEVE SWEENEY, Unison, Cambridge Health branch (personal capacity)

Please write to tell me why you are asking such a stupid question. Could you also let me know if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Unison members whose pension was protected in the deal I brokered with your union and the TUC last year.

Why you are so keen to become Deputy Prime Minister? Why do you think another male politican should be on the front row in New Labour? ARASH ARZIDEH, Newcastle upon Tyne

I'm not standing for the position of Deputy Prime Minister. I'm standing for deputy leader because I think I'm the best person for the job. We need more women in politics and in key cabinet posts, but it should always be based on ability, not tokenism.

Do you think it's a shame that Tony Blair allowed Gordon Brown to oust him, given how well Blair performed in Parliament last week? STEPHEN RIPLEY, Edinburgh

The premise of your question is wrong, but it was a terrific performance which exposed the vacuous nature of David Cameron's leadership.

Your mother worked as a cleaner - do you employ one? C DAVIS, Essex


Do you think you will ever take a degree? If so, what will you study? SARAH MILLS, Sussex

Perhaps. If I do it will be through the Open University on a subject connected with history or English literature.

Should a version of the baccalaureate be introduced across the UK? ALISON HEALY, by e-mail

The International Baccalaureate can be a good qualification for some people as it is broad-based and contains a language, but for others A-levels are a much better option. We are currently looking at what more we can do to make sure the A-level stretches the most able pupils, but it will always remain the national standard.

Do you still believe it was a good idea to invade Iraq? K KHALID, London

I voted for it in Parliament and given the same circumstances I would vote the same way again.

Did you ever get bitten by a dog on your rounds as a postman? PETE TRAVIS, London

Yes, twice. I would have been bitten for a third time had a heavily pregnant woman not rushed to my rescue.

Did you see the recent BBC drama series on posties where they were all sex-crazed? Is it an accurate picture? SONNY AKBAR, Manchester

I didn't see the series but when I was a postman we were too tired to think beyond a cup of tea.

Are you as vain as you look? KATE HORNE, Norwich

No. I'm much more vain than that.

Paul Weller says he will always be a mod. What about you? JOHN DONNELLY, Brighton

Always - in life as in politics I'd rather be a mod than a rocker.

Your son said you would rather be lead singer of the Super Furry Animals than PM. Is that true? ROB HARRIS, Ashford

I wouldn't want to ruin one of my favourite bands. I think my son meant I'd rather have been a professional musician than anything else.

You were a wannabe rock star. What illegal drugs did you take? SUZY COHEN, Manchester


Do you think the actions of this Government, such as introducing university fees, live music licences and cracking down on dole scroungers, will have an impact on Britain's leading role in rock and pop music? SHEILA KNOWLES, Hampstead

No. Tuition fees are part of our programme of greater investment in, and expansion of, higher education. Fees are only payable when a graduate earns more than £15,000 a year, on an income contingent basis with no real rate of interest.

A musician graduate would pay £5.20 a week on the average starting wage of a graduate of £18,000 a year.

You claim to be serious about music. So what were the last three gigs you went to? ADAM RIGBY, Leicester

Youth Music Proms at the Albert Hall last week. Ron Sexsmith at the Jazz Café. And my son's band Johnson (with Ed Harcourt on piano) also at the Jazz Café before that.

Would you advise anyone to get married, as you did, at 18? Brigid Mahon, York

I wouldn't recommend it, but it's none of my business when people choose to get married.

What is the worst thing you have ever done? CHRIS SAYERS, Poole

When I was 12 a charity called the Country Holiday Fund sent me and a crowd of kids from deprived areas of London to Denmark. My sister reminds me that when she collected me from the boat at Harwich all the other kids arrived with a Lego set (from the factory we had visited) but that I swapped mine with a sailor on a boat for 20 untipped Woodbine cigarettes.

You Ask The Questions: Next week: John Reid, Home Secretary

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