Profile: The Lady is for learning: Baroness Blatch, definitely head girl material

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The Independent Online
WITH John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, away on sick leave, reputedly stress-related, it has fallen to Baroness Blatch of Hinchingbrooke, his deputy, to preside over the Government's widely welcomed retreat on its educational reforms. She is playing her part with some style.

No wonder, then, that the no-nonsense, 56-year-old baroness is being presented as the acceptable face of Majorism at the Department for Education. There is speculation, which she dismissed on Thursday as 'silly season' stuff, that the convalescent Mr Patten might return to some less demanding task, and that Lady Blatch - who has already attended several cabinet meetings - would find her acting commission rendered substantive.

On Monday she announced that the department had accepted changes recommended by Sir Ron Dearing, the chairman of the new School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Out go school league tables based on raw test results for seven- and 14-year-olds. The revised tests will be fewer and shorter, and the league tables will take account of more subjective and less easily measured 'value-added' elements. As for the national curriculum, it will take up less of each pupil's time.

Yet she felt able to assure the anxious Tory faithful that the changes would merely 'consolidate the existing benefits of the national curriculum . . . while substantially improving manageability for teachers by freeing up their time to teach'. It was quite a performance.

Lady Blatch is now being described by some of her friends as another Lady Chalker, an almost apolitical, motherly soul - busy, bustling, formidably commonsensical - called in to sort out the mess created by bellicose and ideological lads. It is a nice conceit, but the truth is rather different. Lady Blatch is a shrewder political operator than her boss: moreover, she is as tough as old boots and a conviction politician to the core.

A crucial source of Lady Blatch's strength is the so-called Huntingdon connection. She has lived in the area for almost 30 years with her husband, John, a former RAF test pilot who became an accountant before taking early retirement. For the past 12 years they have occupied a sturdy, double-fronted, red-brick Victorian villa in the village of Spaldwick.

She was a key player on the local Conservative selection committee there in 1978 when John Major was chosen as prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency. Her admiration for the young unknown grew into a close friendship. They have rather similar, off-beat backgrounds that have proved more important than their political differences. According to a constituency activist who has known them both for almost 20 years: 'Like John, she came from nowhere and worked her way up on merit. She is well to the right of him politically, but it doesn't seem to bother either of them.'

The young Emily Triggs was brought up in Birkenhead, the daughter of an electrical repairer who was a semi-invalid and often unable to work. She left school at 16 and after a spell as a shorthand typist went into the Women's Royal Air Force, where she became an air traffic controller.

She left four years later as an NCO with a commendation for outstanding achievement. Her daughter, Elizabeth, has followed her mother into the air force as an air traffic controller. Elizabeth's twin, Andrew, is an academic. The other surviving son is a graphic artist. They are by all accounts a close, though private, family, still scarred by the death at 14 of a younger boy, David, a diabetic who died as a result of faulty medical advice.

When John Major began to make his mark at Westminster, Emily Blatch found herself minding the shop for him back in the constituency. She organised his engagements and dinners and occasionally stood in for him in surgeries and at meetings - a function she still fulfils. The friendship has prospered. Lady Blatch was one of only two ministers invited to Chequers this year for lunch on New Year's Day. This event has somehow come to acquire the significance that standing next to the Soviet leader on Lenin's mausoleum on ceremonial occasions once held. It is a way of signalling favour.

Such relationships between a male MP and a middle-aged female constituency activist are not uncommon in politics. They can lead to friction with the MP's wife. This is decidedly not the case here. Her closeness to Norma Major is as real as her friendship with the Prime Minister. Recently, a bust of Mr Major by Shenda Amery was commissioned by the constituency party and unveiled in the Osborn Gallery in London's West End. Mrs Major was asked to draw aside the curtain, and was invited to suggest somebody to say a few words. She nominated Lady Blatch. The baroness had, in her turn, encouraged the local party to commission the work.

Friends recall a similar occasion last year when the two women turned up together to a constituency occasion that involved the unveiling of a plaque. Mrs Major did the deed while Lady Blatch delivered the words of wisdom. Afterwards Mrs Major commented - with affection rather than malice - 'She (Lady Blatch) makes the speeches and I pull the strings.'

While it is always useful to have the Prime Minister's wife on your side, it is unlikely that Lady Blatch needs strings pulled for her in Downing Street. Friends and enemies alike talk of her easy personal access to Mr Major and of her exploitation of this channel.

Although denied by Downing Street, it is widely believed that Mr Patten received what was subsequently referred to as 'a ferocious bollocking' from the Prime Minister a month ago for his department's failure to persuade teachers and parents of the advantages of the planned educational reforms. The rumour in Whitehall is that Lady Blatch provided Mr Major with much of his ammunition or, at the least, needled him into taking a stand.

Yet, paradoxically, it is Emily May Blatch, an evangelical Christian, and not John Patten, who is the true political believer. In February, in the course of a typical diatribe against progressive education, she proclaimed: 'Instead of learning how to add up, children are to be taught how to use a calculator. Instead of learning how to spell, children are to be taught to look for the meaning in words. Instead of being told that they are right or wrong, children are to be told that they have achieved something.'

Or take her reaction to the roughing up she received last November from the Girls' Schools Association - heads of the leading girls' independent schools, who should surely have been her allies. She had been greeted with hollow laughter when she claimed that the Government had not denigrated teachers. Instead of leaving ill alone, she came back the following day with a statement attacking the chair, a particularly distinguished headmistress, for a 'ridiculous outburst'.

Not surprisingly, Lady Blatch arouses strong emotions. She is said by her critics in the Lords to be humourless and ruthless in debate. According to one usually generous-minded Labour peer who has faced her across the dispatch box, she is 'thoroughly reactionary' and a 'patronising, bossy know-all'. A cross-bench peer describes her 'spitting out words such as 'educationalist' and 'progressive' as if they were synonymous with 'child molester'.' He adds: 'She is absolutely infuriating to debate with. She doesn't listen. Instead she hears what she wants to hear, and then attacks you for things you haven't actually said.'

Another observer says: 'I would not call her a bully, because bullies go for the weak. She slams into the strong and is particularly aggressive to those who know their subject.' Recently, for example, she made a ferocious attack on Lady Williams who, as Shirley Williams, was a progressive Secretary of State for Education under James Callaghan.

Even her most severe critics admit that Lady Blatch is an obsessively hard worker and 'a formidably effective performer' in debate. 'Articulate, fluent and fast on her feet,' was one summary of her approach. A senior civil servant thinks the hostility to her in the Lords reflects her long period in local government, where a more knockabout style is acceptable. 'Quite simply, she is tougher than their Lordships are used to,' he says.

Lady Blatch was elected to Cambridgeshire County Council in 1977, as a 40-year- old housewife. Only four years later she became its leader, a post she held with distinction until 1985, stepping down when the Conservatives lost control of the authority. She continued on the council until 1989. Earlier she had served for eight years as a parent-governor of Hinchingbrooke comprehensive. It was a formative experience, which she marked a decade later by taking her title from the name of the school.

But it was as council leader that she developed her strong theoretical interest in education, pioneering the concept of giving headteachers under her jurisdiction financial control of their schools. At the time this was revolutionary stuff, and it brought her to the attention of the Downing Street policy unit and eventually to Mrs Thatcher.

By the late Eighties her ideas about financial autonomy for schools had become the new Tory orthodoxy, embraced by Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke. Every school now has a substantially greater degree of financial responsibility, and those in which parents vote to 'opt out' of local authority control have almost complete freedom to manage their own budgets. Lady Blatch remains on the radical right as far as budgetary control is concerned. For example, she is said to believe that all schools should be forced to opt out, and is reported to have argued the point forcefully within the department. 'She has an extremely good grasp of detail, and she is not afraid to badger people until they give up in despair.'

Her interest in the radical reform of education, rather than her friendship with Mr Major, provided the reason for the life peerage she was given by Mrs Thatcher in 1987. Her subsequent progress in the Lords was as rapid as her earlier advance through the county council. Within months she was Baroness in Waiting (Government whip). She then became an environment minister for a year before moving to education in Mr Major's post- election reshuffle. Recently she became a Privy Councillor, a distinction in the gift of the Prime Minister.

What next for Lady Blatch? She has demonstrated her competence and sharp learning curve by driving the contentious 288-clause Education Act through the Lords. She is now dealing with the fallout in a thoroughly pragmatic manner. She has the confidence of the Prime Minister. There would be no constitutional difficulty about making her a Secretary of State and thus a member of the Cabinet - Lords Carrington and Young provide recent precedents. Mr Patten would be wise to get well soon.

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