David Miliband, Minister for School Standards: 'There are many things that we could have done better'

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The Independent Online

As you read this on Monday morning, David Miliband will be on his way to a secondary school in Bromley, south-east London, to spend much of the day as a classroom assistant.

A strange job, you might think, for a man whose rapid rise to the job of minister for School Standards within a year of becoming an MP was greeted with speculation that here was the next Prime Minister - possibly but one - in waiting.

The first thing to say is he is not the cruel victim of a government reshuffle that has destroyed any dream he might have of aspiring to higher things.

Today's visit to Kemnal Technology College in Sidcup is the beginning of the climax to a year of negotiations with teachers' unions and those representing classroom assistants over a deal intended to modernise the profession.

This week, he plans to publish details of the new teachers' contract, which will, for the first time in the history of state education, give them the legal right to refuse to do administra- tive tasks, which should be transferred to the new army of school support staff.

He has had quite a baptism of fire since transferring from the world of policy wonks (he was head of the policy unit at Number 10, before becoming an MP at the 2001 election) to the front line of holding ministerial responsibility.

First there was the controversy over A-level grades and Curriculum 2000, then there was the resignation of his boss Estelle Morris and now there is the furore over this year's education budget, which various surveys have said will lead to up to 1,000 teacher redundancies in England.

He was also the minister singled out by the Conservatives to "consider his position" over the redundancies. They said he should have seen it coming because he had been in post for a year but his new Secretary of State, Charles Clarke, had not.

"I don't see any causal link between the collapse of the A-level system, the departure of the Secretary of State, and the funding crisis and my arrival at the department," he said dryly. "That would be overestimating my influence."

Instead, he is quite bullish on the future for education. "It has been a very interesting year for me," he said. "It has been a year of change in the education system. I think there has been a quiet revolution going on, particularly in the secondary sector, in England.

"It is a bottom-up revolution, led by excellent heads and teachers. We have now got to get from the point of the glass being half-full in terms of what is being delivered to the glass being completely full."

Schools, he said, were collaborating more and sharing ideas. The vision of every school becoming a specialist one - in cities such as Sheffield and counties such as Shropshire where the initiative is being pioneered - was helping nearby secondaries to share their expertise in a particular subject rather than keeping their specialism as an elitist advantage. New specialisms are coming on board, including one in music, an inherited love of Mr Miliband since his marriage to Louise Shackleton, a cellist.

The opportunity for youngsters to have access to a tailor-made curriculum had grown, with the relaxation of national curriculum requirements for students aged 14 to 16, he said. One in eight of the youngsters who have taken advantage of this, for instance, have opted to study for a GCSE in engineering, a sign that interest in vocational qualifications is growing.

But teachers' leaders argue that all this, and the modernisation reforms aimed at reducing their workload, have been put at risk by the funding problems this year.

There is disquiet in the profession that the threat of redundancies caught ministers and civil servants on the hop because they did not realise the true extent of the rising costs schools were facing, through increased pensions and national insurance contributions plus performance-related pay rises for teachers.

Mr Miliband agrees "there are many things we could have done better" but is adamant the financial impact on schools will not be as great as it has been portrayed in the press. He referred me to an article I wrote months ago, the day after the comprehensive spending review settlement for education was announced.

"You said there was no jubilation at the Department for Education and Skills," he said. "We always saw that year three of the spending review was the big one. The first two years the cash sums [in terms of increased spending] were big but there was also a lot of pressure in the system."

His comments seem the first attempt to prepare teachers for the realisation that it will take two years before schools reap the benefits from Gordon Brown's record three-year settlement for the public services. Before, this year's difficulties had been dismissed as a "one-off" problem by government sources. Mr Miliband said: "We are raising the share of national income that's going into education. In 2005-06 it will be above the European average spending after being below the average for 25 years."

It would, he said, be enough to finance the various stages of the deal on modernising the teaching profession, the first of which was transferring 24 administrative duties from teachers to support staff from September. He added: "It is the change of culture which is more important than the finance." The new contract for teachers is expected to be published this week.. "It is a contractual right for each teacher not to have to do these tasks," he said. "The final agreement will be better and different as a result of the input we've had in negotiations. There are real gains for teachers and real gains for support staff."

When he arrived at his first headteachers' conference after his appointment last year, he was memorably introduced by Sue Sayles, president of the National Association of Head Teachers at the time, as "the year eight (13-year-old) in a suit" because of his boyish looks. He was 37 then. "I'm at least year nine now. In fact, I've probably aged three years and started to get grey hairs," he said. He mentions that his fellow minister Ivan Lewis is younger than he is.

Mr Miliband said he was really relishing his job as a minister and had no desire to go back to the days of relative obscurity from the public gaze as head of policy at Number 10. The reshuffle may have passed him by (he was adamant he wanted to stay at education to see through the workload reforms) but those who have been involved in negotiations with him would no longer dismiss him as the "year eight in the suit".

The earlier predictions of a man on his way to the top may yet be well founded.


* Born 17 July 1965, in London;
* Educated: Haverstock Comprehensive, Camden, north London. Corpus Christi College, Oxford, (Politics, Philosophy, Economics). Kenney Scholar, MSc in political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston;
* Family: Married Louise Shackelton, cellist, in 1998, no children;
* Employment: Research fellow, Institute of Public Policy Research, 1989-94. Secretary, Commission on Social Justice, 1992-4;
* Head of policy, leader of the opposition's office, 1994-7;
* Head of policy, 10, Downing Street, 1997-2001;
* MP for South Shields: 2001-;
* Minister for School Standards: 2002-;
* Hobbies: Supporting Arsenal and South Shields FC.