Come Hell, parents or boycotts: Profile: John Patten, religiously reforming education

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'I believe in God. I worry about him. I think that he probably worries about me.' On 11 April 1992, John Haggitt Charles Patten - a Cambridge- educated Oxford don-turned-politician - was unexpectedly made Secretary of State for Education. Five days after the appointment was announced, the Spectator carried a mannered, rather self-conscious article by the new cabinet minister. The quotation above was one of many which made the piece a fogey's delight. But it was read with horror by much of the educational establishment.

'It is also self-evident that as we grow up each individual chooses whether to be good or bad,' the man placed in charge of our children's education continued. His thesis was that dwindling belief in redemption and damnation had led to 'loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and badness'. This absence of belief and of fear encouraged criminality, indiscipline and bad behaviour in schools. 'I don't know what planet that man comes from,' one union official said this week. 'I mean, what were my members meant to do? Tell little Johnny to knock it off or he'll go to Hell?'

The truth about the Spectator article was that it had been teased out of Patten by the editor, Dominic Lawson, before the election was called. His pitch was that he had heard that the then Minister of State at the Home Office - a devout Roman Catholic - was one of the few people in public life who confessed to an unfashionable belief in individual evil.

Though deeply felt, it was written almost as a dare during the election campaign, when it still seemed likely that the Conservatives would lose. But after the piece was published, the new Secretary of State received 640 letters about it. More than 500 were supportive.

Since then, Mr Patten has given God - and the educational establishment - further reason to worry about him. His skirmishing with the profession over the policies he inherited - encouraging schools to opt out of local authority control, league-tabling schools by exam results, testing the national curriculum - has been predictable.

But the Secretary of State has shown an uncompromising nature, and a wider propensity to shock. Mr Patten has managed to alienate those he might have recruited as allies - independent headteachers, and the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations (Napta), whose representatives he last month called 'neanderthal'.

When they came to London to lobby him recently, his department announced that the Secretary of State had too many engagements to meet Napta representatives. (This week he relented and decided that time could be found to meet a parent-teacher umbrella group.) Mr Patten does not like talking to the teaching unions, and avoids the traditional ministerial speeches at their conferences - just as he ducks the high-profile television grillings which his predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, so obviously enjoyed.

According to one admirer, this reticence is calculation, albeit misjudged, and not arrogance or cowardice. 'John just thinks that there is more downside than upside in talking to what he sees as unrepresentative groups whose object is to snipe at him rather than to engage in genuine debate.' It is true that he devotes more time to visiting schools than Mr Clarke did and he has directed his ministers to do the same: the three ministers will together have visited 100 by the end of their first year in post.

Other observers are less charitable. They say that Mr Patten avoids bruising encounters with pressure groups and refuses high-profile interviews with the likes of Jeremy Paxman because he lacks self-confidence and has no great grasp of the detail of what has suddenly become his field.

In small groups Mr Patten is jollier and more relaxed than he seems on formal occasions. 'One-to-one, we are on easy- going, first-name terms,' said a senior figure who works to him. 'But get him round a table and he tightens up, insisting on 'Secretary of State' and 'Chairman' and 'Permanent Secretary'. It can only be a sign of insecurity, because he really isn't pompous.'

The truth seems to be that he is unhappy about a number of the changes he inherited but feels that he must soldier on. He has told friends that he wants to stay at Education long enough to make an impact. He believes that the Prime Minister accepts the need for stability and continuity in the department.

This prospect fills some of his civil servants with dismay. 'The thing about my master is that . . . he read geography,' said an intellectually austere senior official of the Department for Education. The point about this academically snobbish jibe is that geography was pilloried by some people in the Fifties and Sixties, much as sociology was in the Seventies and Eighties. It was sometimes seen, however unfairly, as the soft option; the subject you read if you were not tremendously bright at school or had no idea of what you actually wanted to read. Some try to argue that Mr Patten is not as bright as he tries to appear and that the carefully crafted, donnish persona is his way of compensating. In fact Mr Patten is a Supernumerary Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford. He gained his teaching fellowship in 1972, after being educated at two Roman Catholic state schools, St Peter's, Leatherhead, and Wimbledon College, and on a scholarship at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he took a 2:2.

While a don he married a strikingly attractive and intelligent woman, Louise, 10 years his junior. Having been a successful merchant banker, she is now a highly paid consultant. They have one daughter, Mary Claire, who attends a Catholic state primary school in Westminster. It is, by all accounts, an idyllic marriage.

Professionally, he played a significant part in the evolution of his subject, geography, to embrace chunks of what had been history, economics, politics and demography. 'He joined an unpromising discipline at a moment of transition and he seized the time,' says an academic colleague. 'It was - in the best sense - opportunism of a high order. But I don't think he quite has a first-class mind, and his ambition was always towards politics, not academic excellence.'

Patten is not ideologically inclined. He entered Parliament in 1979 as MP for the marginal City of Oxford seat. (Since 1983 he has been MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.) He had cultivated the seat since the aristocratic scholar 'Monty' Woodhouse was defeated by Labour in 1974. Patten and a dozen other bright young 'wets' formed the Blue Chip Group. Its members devoted considerable time and energy to fighting Margaret Thatcher's deflationary policies.

His values are best understood as a reflection of an unusual family background. His father, Jack, is an Anglican from a line of farm labourers, who was a jobbing gardener in the Guildford area. His mother, a devout Catholic from the Czech minority in Austria, moved to Britain in the late Thirties, working first as a domestic servant.

At that time the Catholic church allowed mixed marriages only if the children were raised as Catholics, which is how John acquired his faith. 'Those brought up in the framework of Catholic theology would find John's Spectator article old-fashioned but perfectly comprehensible,' says a Catholic friend. 'It is only post-Christians and those from other traditions who find it a bit batty.'

Patten's was an earnest, tight-knit, happy, though materially impoverished, family. They valued a good, old-fashioned education in a way most common among immigrants and those of modest but ambitious, God-fearing, working-class stock. This provided the other source of Patten's thinking. He is convinced that modern educational theories have damaged the chances of people from poor backgrounds and is obsessive in his dislike of those he holds responsible.

An acquaintance once asked him whether he knew the quotation from that languid upper-middle-class Fabian, Anthony Crosland, who had said privately when Secretary of State for Education: 'I will not rest until I have destroyed every fucking grammar school in this country.' Without hesitation, Patten marginally corrected the quotation, explained the context and gave the page reference of the book by Crosland's widow, Susan, in which it appeared. 'You bet I know it,' Patten concluded grimly.

Patten waxes lyrical about the teaching of 'correct' English, which is, he believes, 'an enabler' for children of disadvantaged background. He told officials when he moved in that he regarded testing and grading and the provision of information as the way in which ordinary people could be liberated. It gave them the information necessary to make informed judgements and then to act upon them. When one protested that the resulting mobility could damage weak schools, he is said to have commented that he 'looked forward to shutting down a lot of duff schools'.

He spent the first three months in his job being thoroughly briefed, in readiness to write a 30,000-word White Paper which, he announced, would prove a 'landmark', deciding the shape of schooling for the next quarter-century. The world at large, however, seems to have shrugged its collective shoulders at Choice and Diversity: schools are not opting out as quickly as they might, and the most fed-up teachers are preparing to boycott English tests for 14-year-olds.

The boycotts were probably an avoidable evil, and Mr Patten might do more to inspire enthusiasm for what he calls 'self-governing state schools'. But it could equally be argued that the Government was bound to get bogged down in the detail of its reforms, once past the frantic period of implementing the national curriculum. Parents will judge Mr Patten on whether he is creating the framework to raise standards. Educationists are more sceptical by the day; wise parents will reserve judgement.