Ruth Kelly: Harsh lessons for a high-flier

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The Independent Online

It was three days before Christmas and some of the most influential people in British education were settling down to a festive break when their telephones began to ring. To their astonishment, the new Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, was on the line offering them season's greetings.

It was three days before Christmas and some of the most influential people in British education were settling down to a festive break when their telephones began to ring. To their astonishment, the new Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, was on the line offering them season's greetings. She had asked for the numbers of around 10 of the key figures in education, delighting them with her friendly, good-natured style. The warm words seemed to set the scene for an easy transition to high office for the 36-year-old mother of four, who had been catapulted into one of the most taxing jobs in government just days earlier when Charles Clarke took over the Home Office following David Blunkett's surprise exit.

The appointment of Ms Kelly, the youngest cabinet minister by a decade and an MP only since 1997, was hailed as a triumph for one of the fastest rising members of the Government, a phenomenally intelligent operator who had impressed Tony Blair in a series of high-powered roles in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

But despite her personal charm and openness, within weeks the gloss appeared to have been knocked off her first months in office after a string of difficult encounters with the notoriously hard-to-impress teaching profession.

Her decision to reject the key recommendation of the Tomlinson report on the future of 14 to 19 education and maintain GCSEs and A-levels disappointed many in the education world, who had seen the former chief schools inspector's inquiry as a way finally to create something akin to a British baccalaureate.

Ms Kelly insists that she has accepted 90 per cent of the Tomlinson report. The problem is that what many in the teaching profession saw was the end of their dream of radical examination reform and a move to vocational qualifications which some criticise as a return to selection at 14.

Her first major speech as Education Secretary at the Secondary Heads Association at the beginning of March was met with vocal grumbles, and bad headlines as she was accused of patronising teachers. Her speech, 25 minutes in a one-hour slot, was seen as being pitched above her audience to the television audiences.

The Education Secretary has not come as well as she might have from the school meals controversy. She has insisted that she had ordered a report on school meals "on day one" when she took office based on her experience as a parent, making her look at once both eager for association with celebrity and mean-minded in giving credit where credit was due. Jamie Oliver, however, was the man who got the credit and the episode has left ministers looking defensive in the face of a successful campaign from the chef, despite announcing a £280m package of support for school meals. To cap it call, she was branded the worst education secretary since Labour came to power by the new president of the National Union of Teachers, Britain's largest teachers' organisation.

Ms Kelly has also attracted criticism for her personal style. Charming and friendly in private, her public performances have raised eyebrows at Labour HQ. Even some of the party's media managers accept that Ms Kelly has looked wooden and unconvincing in some interviews.

Amanda Platell, the former Conservative communications chief, described her as "odd" in one article. She wrote: "It's not because she talks like a bloke (and in an unflattering light looks like one too) or because she eschews the eyebrow tweezers; it's just that she's a bit creepy." Even some senior Labour figures are wondering whether throwing her in at the deep end was a mistake.

Ms Kelly was recommended strongly for the post by Alan Milburn after working as his deputy at the Cabinet Office. But senior Labour figures acknowledge that she has not had a brilliant start after moving from a backroom role to a key frontline position. "People are asking whether history is repeating itself," said one minister, comparing Ms Kelly's early days to the record of Estelle Morris, who resigned after a series of setbacks.

Friends defend her, however, insisting that she has the experience to tackle her job. "You have the combination of her being a very easy-going person who takes her job very seriously," said one Labour figure. "People find her very capable and easy to talk to. When she is doing her job and on a public platform she takes it very seriously."

Ms Kelly has not been discouraged by the brickbats. She is said to ignore the media and try to get on with her job, telling friends "What's important is that I do a good job".

She has learned from her experiences; her speech to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last week was pitched much less to the television audience and more to the professionals in the hall. And she shrugged off the attacks by NUT president Hilary Bills. Steve Sinnott, the NUT general secretary, has played down the incident, and is due to meet Ms Kelly formally for the first time next week.

Ms Kelly enjoys the respect of senior figures in education and is likely to emerge as a central face of Labour in the election campaign, fronting a key public service department in an election Labour hopes will be dominated by the economy, health and education. She set out her political philosophy at the start of the week in a lecture for the Fabian Society, arguing that reform of the comprehensive school system was essential to ensure that "no individual's life chances should be unfairly determined by their social class".

Ruth Kelly was born to Catholic parents in Limavady, Northern Ireland, near where her father Bernard ran a pharmacy. The family moved to Belfast before crossing the water to England where Ms Kelly attended Westminster School as a boarder before winning a place at Queen's College, Oxford where she took a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

In 1990 she impressed Will Hutton, then economics editor of The Guardian, and joined as an economics writer, working for the paper for four years while studying for an MSc part time at the London School of Economics. Her famed ability with figures led her to the major scoop that Norman Lamont had broken the Treasury's golden rules of public spending in his 1992 budget. She joined an anti-racism group, where she met her husband Derek Gadd.

She was headhunted by Mervyn King at the Bank of England to write the bank's quarterly inflation report, but left to contest the Conservative seat of Bolton West for Labour while heavily pregnant. She won the marginal seat and gave birth to her first son Eamonn 11 days later.

At Westminster, she enjoyed a meteoric career, working as a parliamentary aide to the then Agriculture Minister Nick Brown before being promoted to the Treasury as Economic Secretary and the Cabinet Office.

Wisely for someone with ambition, Ms Kelly has worked hard to avoid being sucked into the faction fighting between Blairites and Brownites. "I am not interested in all that. I just keep out of it," she has told friends. However, she found it harder than she hoped. When she moved to the Treasury as financial secretary she forged a good working relationship with Gordon Brown but was never fully accepted into his inner circle because of her Blairite instincts. One Brown ally said: "She is very ambitious. She hitched her star to Blair's wagon."

If her time at the Treasury gave her an insider's knowledge of government, and led to predictions that she would be the first woman chancellor or even prime minister, her promotion to the Cabinet Office widened her work in government.

However, as Education Secretary Ms Kelly immediately attracted controversy over her links with the controversial Roman Catholic Opus Dei movement. She has been defensive about the issue. She does not wear her faith on her sleeve, preferring to keep her religion private, and has insisted that she abides by Cabinet collective responsibility. She insisted in one interview: "It is a private spiritual life and I don't think it is relevant to my job." However, some believe she would have found it hard to accept a job as health secretary because of her views on abortion.

She has won over journalists with her engaging manner - she always seems pleased to see people - and takes time to ask questions and seek opinions rather than merely pontificate at length. It is a quality that has softened senior figures in education, who still feel optimistic about the prospects for the new education secretary despite her slightly difficult first few months in office. They have found her approachable and willing to listen, although some remain sceptical that she will be able to fight education's corner with the big beasts of Nos 10 and 11.

Ms Kelly did use her considerable inside knowledge of the Treasury to secure a major settlement for education in the Budget last month. She was careful to pepper her lengthy bids with the evidence she knew would convince her former boss Gordon Brown to part with cash. The result was not merely more than £9bn for primary schools, but also £1.5 bn for rebuilding further education colleges, the unsung Cinderellas of the education world.

When she was appointed, Ruth Kelly appeared to be the youthful supermum of the Blair administration. She still maintains part of the image. Most evenings she manages to leave her offices opposite Church House at 6.30pm, in time to put her children to bed. Her old rule at the Treasury, not to take home ministerial red boxes, has had to go by the board.

Now she faces selling one of Labour's key messages to the voters, defending a majority of 5,518 as well as trying to secure her reputation as one of Labour's most promising figures.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born

9 May 1968 at Limavady, Northern Ireland, to Bernard Kelly, a pharmacist, and Gertrude Kelly, a teacher.

Family

Married Derek Gadd in 1996. They have four children.

Education

Westminster School; Queen's College, Oxford (BA, PPE, 1989); London School of Economics (MSc 1992).

Career

Economics writer, The Guardian, 1990-94; deputy editor, quarterly inflation report, Bank of England. Entered Parliament as MP for Bolton West,1997. PPS to Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, 1998-2001; Economic Secretary to the Treasury, before working at the Cabinet Office; Education Secretary, December 2004

She says...

"I have always liked thinking about real life issues and how I can apply my principles to helping people."

They say...

"She combines a certain steel with great intelligence and warmth."

- Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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