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The man who always gets the right answer

Judith Judd on why Government ministers in a crisis call on Sir Ron Dearing
"WHO's Secretary of State for Education? Answer: Sir Ron Dearing," MPs used to joke at Westminster. That was in the days when John Patten was Secretary of State for Education and Sir Ron had been called in to sort out the teachers' boycott of the Government's school tests. Gillian Shephard, the present secretary of state, is a more competent performer than her predecessor but even she has twice had to call in "Saint" Ron.

Last spring she asked him to review education for 16- to 19-year-olds, one of the most consistently controversial issues of the past 20 years. He has to reconcile the aims of a Prime Minister who is determined that A-levels will not change and a teaching profession determined that they will. Now, with vice-chancellors threatening to introduce a pounds 300 levy on all new students, she has called on him to head off a crisis in the universities.

Two years ago, after slimming down the national curriculum and pacifying teachers, he found time to chair Camelot's bid to run the National Lottery.

So what is it about this 66-year-old ex-civil servant? Why has he become the Government's "fixer" and trouble-shooter? How does this unassuming stamp-collector manage to defuse disputes that have defeated politicians?

He grew up in Hull, where his father, a dockyard clerk, was killed when he was 10. At 16 he left Doncaster Grammar School to work in the local employment exchange and rose quickly in the civil service. When he left in 1979 to become chairman of the Post Office he was deputy secretary - the rank second from the top - at the Department of Trade and Industry. In a profession often regarded as the preserve of Oxbridge high-fliers, it was a remarkable achievement.

People mention Sir Ron's inexhaustible capacity for hard work and his firm grasp of difficult issues. But they also talk about sheer niceness and honesty. "He is transparently not out for wealth, power or self-aggrandisement," said one colleague. "People don't see him as competitive or challenging. He charms people into compromise."

His detractors are hard to find. His ability to see the force of different arguments is genuine so he is able to get on with people who disagree with him. Tributes to his trouble-shooting talents come from unlikely quarters. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NAS/UWT, the teachers' union which led the way in the battle against testing, says: "He is a very good listener, a very good consulter and a very good consensus finder."

But it would be wrong to assume that his niceness implies naivety. His active listening, says one educationalist, is a deliberate policy. He woos an audience with practised skill. One of those consulted during the national curriculum review describes his technique. "He makes you feel like the most important person in the world. He convinces you he is taking your ideas on board. He rephrases them in a way which is different from the way you put them. He does it so nicely that you feel you can't protest."

His astute grasp of politics makes him a master of the possible or, some would say, the fudge. He is expected to come up with solutions that the politicians can swallow in both the A-level and higher education reviews. And they are likely to be at least palatable to the educational world.

The skills he acquired as a civil servant have proved invaluable. Yet some would say that his civil service background is his weakness as well as his strength. He achieves the acceptable compromise but can fail to make the bold stroke that is sometimes needed. A-levels and universities will prove a bigger challenge to his skills than the national curriculum and testing. Ministers have used him to kick two of their biggest education problems into touch, but diplomacy is not an end in itself. The real test for Sir Ron will not be whether he can keep everyone happy but whether he can find the right, workable solutions.