Kelly may look like a schoolgirl. But she's passed her first big test

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly's appointment to the Cabinet two months ago was one of the more extraordinary of the Blair era. One of the features of Tony Blair's management style has been his willingness to give responsibility to people who are shockingly young. Many of the people who worked in his private office in opposition were in their 20s and yet his judgement was sound: they did not make mistakes. He has been more cautious in Government, but, as a young prime minister, he now has six ministers in his Cabinet who are younger than him.

Ruth Kelly's appointment to the Cabinet two months ago was one of the more extraordinary of the Blair era. One of the features of Tony Blair's management style has been his willingness to give responsibility to people who are shockingly young. Many of the people who worked in his private office in opposition were in their 20s and yet his judgement was sound: they did not make mistakes. He has been more cautious in Government, but, as a young prime minister, he now has six ministers in his Cabinet who are younger than him.

Youngest of all, and the youngest woman cabinet minister ever, is Kelly, 36, and she is in charge of one of the two crucial "delivery" departments. She does not look the part. She looks young in a way that Harold Wilson, in the Cabinet at 31 (admittedly before the age of television politics), and William Hague, at 34, did not. Most MPs over the age of 36 were not impressed by her unexpected promotion. Some of them predicted privately, more in anger than in sorrow, that she had been over-promoted and would crumple more quickly than her older predecessor, Estelle Morris, who gave up with honour two years ago. I was told that it was "cruel" to throw her in to such a big job with no experience in a customer-facing department. Blair was pursuing a reckless human resources policy, said older and wiser heads, that would not be tolerated in any well-run company.

That, of course, made me will her to succeed. But it was hard to keep faith when she announced her policy on the future of exams in the Commons last week. Far from acting as a foil, her youthful Conservative shadow, Tim Collins, 40, made proceedings look even more like a sixth form mooting contest.

But appearances can be deceptive. The test for Kelly is not what she looks like or sounds like but what decisions she takes. Now she has taken her first big decision. She will not scrap A-levels. She has responded to Sir Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14-19 education by not accepting the most important bit. Sir Mike wanted to end the division between A-levels (well regarded, despite recent hiccups) and vocational qualifications (looked down on, despite decades of good intentions about "parity of esteem"). So he proposed a diploma to include GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications and bring everybody together in a big warm hug. When Kelly said No, it was time for horror all round. Golden opportunity for reform missed. Cave in to the CBI and the Institute of Directors. Another New Labour betrayal of the disadvantaged and oppressed. She is just a puppet put in by Blair to do his right-wing bidding.

There was something synthetic about all this, though, because anyone who had been following the arguments about the Tomlinson report should have known that she was most unlikely to abolish A-levels. The clinching argument of Tomlinson's defenders was that she lacked the courage to defy the conservative prejudices of Middle English voters so close to an election. Yet this is where the Tomlinson case starts to unravel and Kelly starts to emerge with credit. Tomlinson, we were told, had spent a long time consulting everyone and had worked hard to come up with proposals that reflected a consensus - as if the length of time Sir Mike devoted to his task and the amount of work he put into it should have guaranteed him top marks. But it cannot have been much of a consensus if it could not survive contact with the electorate.

Tomlinson's defenders seem to accept that the voters want to keep A-levels. It must be, therefore, that the voters are wrong and that they need to be led by enlightened politicians to a better understanding of the truth. That is possible - and there may be some circumstances where that is the politicians' role. But this is not one of them. My view is that Tomlinson got it wrong. You cannot make vocational qualifications worth more by renaming them. And Kelly was quite right to say that you do not lift up vocational qualifications by abolishing A-levels which, whatever their faults, are generally understood and respected.

Kelly has resisted the temptation to go for the easy attractions of an "over-arching" solution - Tomlinson's diploma was always described as "over-arching", as if jargon alone could bind academic and vocational qualifications into one logical system. That is a small mercy, but we should be grateful for it. Improving Britain's education system is much too complicated and difficult for over-arching solutions. That ought to be the lesson of eight years of Labour government, at least six of which have seen big increases in spending. A year before he moved from Islington to Downing Street, a younger-looking Tony Blair reassured fellow Islington resident and journalist Anne McElvoy. "Give us two terms," he said, and she would be able to send her children to secondary schools in the borough without qualm. Two terms later, his former speech writer Peter Hyman has left to work in a school in the borough. It is improving, but not to the extent that would reverse middle-class flight to other boroughs and the private sector. Only now is there the prospect of dramatic change if it becomes an academy governed by a private sponsor. That is a policy, unlike the paper shuffle of an over-arching diploma, that offers some real hope to pupils in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The bringing in of the "over-arching" literacy and numeracy hours at the start of the Blair years produced a useful lift in primary school standards, but it has been overstated and it has not been sustained. There are limits to what activist governments can achieve with over-arching solutions, especially in education. Educational bureaucracies do not always know best. Sometimes the electors know better than the educational consensus.

One of the surprising vindications of the Prime Minister's decision to meet voters directly was that it threw up the issue of education for children with special needs - after he was heckled on television by a woman who protested against the vogue for "inclusion" in mainstream schools. Let ministers sort that out, rather than spend time renaming everything.

There are plenty more sacred consensuses that need to be slain. Forcing everyone to stay in full-time education until 18, to take just one example. It is difficult enough as it is to persuade thousands of pupils under the age of 16 that school offers them anything useful - hence the problem of truancy. Kelly's talk last week of promoting the "expectation" of staying on until 18 was ambiguous and slightly worrying.

But Kelly has passed her first test. So far that gives her only a string of three As, indistinguishable from many other reasonably able candidates. In time, with the finer distinction of A** and A* grades, we may find out whether she will be a great education secretary.

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