A minister in a class of his own

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The Independent Online
If spin doctors had wanted to design the ideal Labour secretary of state for education, they might have come up with someone very like David Blunkett, a man whose own life shows that his commitment to high standards for all is genuine and heartfelt.

He has never been able to see, and went to a special school for the blind in Sheffield at the age of four. He came back to his family's home on a council estate only once a month. When he was 12, his father died in an accident at work and his mother had to make ends meet while she battled for compensation from the gas board. Only people who have never been poor, he says, have romantic notions about poverty.

He left boarding school in Shrewsbury at 16 without any O-levels after the headmaster told him he didn't believe in exams. But he went to night-school and day-release classes - in O-level physics he was allowed to describe experiments rather than draw them. Eventually, the man who had been assessed at 12 as having an IQ of 104 won a place at Sheffield University to read politics and modern history before becoming a teacher at a nearby technical college.

And unlike some of his cabinet colleagues, he has made uncontroversial school choices for his children. His three sons were sent to the struggling local Sheffield comprehensive. Mr Blunkett married at the age of 23 but divorced in 1988; at weekends he returns to Sheffield to spend time with his sons.

Though he once considered becoming a Methodist minister, he was always fascinated by politics. While still a student he became the youngest member of Sheffield City Council, where he was thought to be on the left of the party. In 1987 he became MP for Sheffield, Brightside, and, five years later, made it into John Smith's Shadow Cabinet as health spokesman.

His loyalty to Tony Blair has remained unshaken despite the difficulties created by the Blairs' decision to send their children to an opted-out school. Soon after Mr Blunkett became his party's education spokesman in opposition, he was slapped down by the leadership for suggesting that VAT might be put on private school fees. No one had told him that the policy had been ruled out. He immediately fell into line and his place in the inner circle of senior ministers is now assured.

On education, his views are pragmatic. He says that he backs teaching methods that work whether they are considered to be right- or left-wing: solid mental arithmetic, discipline and homework. Children, he believes, should be grouped by ability.

If any education secretary can inspire the teaching profession to join him in the pursuit of high achievement, it is David Blunkett.