Practising what he preaches
Personal experience has left Lord Adonis determined to improve education in Britain, even if that means working across the political divide
Andrew Adonis is in his cramped office opposite the Lords, struggling to open cardboard boxes stuffed with his new book on schools reform.
Under the watchful eye of a huge portrait of his political hero, Gladstone, the former Downing Street insider and Cabinet minister looks every inch the policy wonk. He’s busy doing what he loves best, talking about education – and about the flaws of the liberal Left.
Adonis is citing an anecdote about another of his key political influences, the equally cerebral former SDP founder and Labour minister Roy Jenkins. He explains that when Jenkins was offered the job of Education Secretary, he gently told Harold Wilson why he couldn’t do the job.
“What he said to Wilson was ‘Look Harold, I can’t take on Education because all three of my kids are at private school’. To which Wilson replied, ‘So are mine!’
“That was Labour in 1965, when it was abolishing all the grammar schools and creating comprehensives. It was all being done by ministers who had no personal association with the institutions that they were creating themselves. That is just, to my mind, politically bankrupt as a way of running the country.”
As he relates the story, the former Schools Minister becomes more outraged with every sentence at Wilson’s nonchalance. Contrary, to his image as a slightly-built, one-man brains trust for Tony Blair, Adonis passionately believes in doing, not just talking. And, crucially, that politicians have to practise what they preach.
Jenkins had also confided to Adonis something not in his memoirs: that the real reason he turned down the Education post was that he simply didn’t know enough about state education to know how to construct a good policy.
That Jenkins approach – of grounding policy in evidence and in personal experience – is central to Adonis’ political philosophy. A pragmatist to his fingertips, the former Schools Minister and Transport Secretary has been away from the front line for a while, but is now firmly back in the action. This week, he’s launching his book “Education, Education, Education”. Next week, he’s back on his newest task of all: reviewing Labour’s industrial policy.
“Again this crosses party divides,” he explains. “We all realise that the absence of industrial policy over the past 30 years was a mistake. What the state should not be in the business of doing is favouring particular companies because the Prime Minister has had a chat with their chief executive or with a union boss who’s worried about some job losses. That was the worst ‘picking winners’ culture of the 1970s. But the state should be very strongly behind growth sectors and what I’m seeking to do is to work out what that means.
“I’m doing it in the way I did the education reform to start with. When I started doing education, the first thing I did was to visit hundreds of schools. It was out of that the academies idea came.”
So now he’s incessantly visiting companies and talking to their executives to get a real sense of what it is they need from the state – and don’t need.
He visited Jaguar LandRover last week, getting very excited (for a cyclist) at their R&D centre and their “phenomenal” new car models.
But he also learned of their supply problems. “They told me that they think we are producing only half of the number of engineering graduates they think we need to produce for the automotive sector. Well, if that is true that is a damning indictment of the state.”
“The big issue facing the country is where are the jobs and where are the growth sectors? The big issue facing the country 15 years ago was how do we modernise our public services? And I’m actually going about this latest task the way I spent the previous task, which is spending a good period of time, before coming to any conclusions about policy at all, simply getting to know the sectors really well. It’s quite a big job of work and I’m finding it hugely enjoyable and stimulating...I’m going to visit a wind farm next week.”
As for Lords reform, the man Tony Blair made a peer says it is “dead, dead, dead because of the total incompetence of Nick Clegg.” Asked if he would one day like to be an MP, he has an intriguing answer. “It’s impossible to leave the Lords, unless you are a hereditary.. I’m stuck there whether I like it or not,” he smiles.
But if life peers could be allowed one day to quit, would he run for the Commons? “I would certainly consider it. I regret going to the Lords not the Commons.”
Education remains his passion, however. His new book is part history of education reform and part blueprint for what needs to happen next.
“I’m a bit like a SatNav, constantly seeking to chart a reform path forward”. It sets out “in Adonis style”, he says, a reform plan for the “them and us society which is still deeply entrenched.”
Reform of the education system is, he insists, very straightforward.
“To have a decent education system you need schools that are well run with real ambition and a capacity to deliver and you need good teachers. That’s it, basically. Everything else revolves around that, including all those arguments we have about curriculums and exams.”
Michael Gove has continued his academies programme, though Adonis points out it is simply a ‘marketing’ trick to call new academies Free Schools. Indeed, he is in regular contact with both Gove and his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg.
“Yes I talk to Michael” Adonis explains, quickly adding: “Stephen Twigg is a great friend of mine.” However, party politics, as ever, is not part of the Adonis approach. “I’m quite, you know, happy to talk to all comers…in as far as I can get people like Michael Gove to agree with me, that’s brilliant. The fact that the Conservatives have now put at the centre of their education programme the creation of academies to replace failing comprehensive schools rather than doing what they were doing ten or 15 years ago, which was setting up a few more grammar schools or a few more assisted places at private schools, is a sign, basically, that we’ve won the argument. Well that’s great. That’s fantastic. The slightly depressing thing is that some people on my own side… think that we compromised too much with the other side without understanding what’s really at stake here, which is creating successful education institutions, serving the community at large, which means predominantly the less well off because most people aren’t particularly well off, where they didn’t exist before.”
With school management shaken up, Adonis’ next aim is to “make the teaching profession the foremost profession in the country– I’ve got a number of suggestions in the book for big reforms…they’re not rocket science.” Adonis wants top universities and top schools to train the next generational of teachers as well as the introduction of national standards for training and higher starting salaries for maths and science teachers.
He has some black marks for Gove, however. “Some of the stuff that Michael has been doing has been unashamedly pandering to the Tory right.”
Adonis was flabbergasted when he heard Gove float the idea of a return to O-levels, which he describes as a “hark back to an old elitist... society where as a matter of principle only a minority are allowed to achieve decent qualifications.” And, he adds, when David Cameron used a recent interview to bemoan the “all must have prizes” culture, the Prime Minister came close to backing a return “to the old world where most people failed as a matter of principle… it was a very, very glib slogan.”
And he has a warning for Gove too. “Michael… would like to be progressive but he also seems to me to want to be leader of the Conservative Party and is making the classic mistake, if I can give him some advice through your columns, of thinking that the way to do that is by pandering to the worst in your party.”
Central to his mission is “breaking down the Berlin wall” of education between public and private sectors. He is scathing about those on the left who failed children, saying Shirley Williams “massacred” the old direct grant scheme in the 1970s, “which was a huge tragedy for the education system.”
For Adonis, his mission is approached with a zeal borne from his own personal experience. His full title is Lord Adonis of Camden Town, a tribute to his birthplace, where he grew up on a council estate.
He may have all the trappings of the Establishment, but he’s never forgotten where he came from. At the age of three, toddler Andreas Adonis was taken into care because his father, a Cypriot waiter, couldn’t cope with bringing him and his sister up on his own. He was put in a care home and then a state boarding school. He flowered, getting into Oxford, before following the gilded path of the FT, Downing Street and the Cabinet.
When asked if his passion for education reform comes from his background, he answers: “A lot of it, pretty much all of it actually.” The former minister then pauses, his voice cracking with emotion and memories of a difficult childhood clearly still raw.
“My experience of life has been tough, when I was younger. What I realised starkly is that politics can make a very big difference. I was essentially brought up by the state. I was in a children’s home for 10 years. And it worked out for me. But there are far more children who have been in children’s homes who end up in jail than go to Oxford or Cambridge or indeed to any of the top universities – and that is a massive failure on the part of the state. This is not a game, this is deadly serious.
“The reason why I’m so committed to education reform and social reform more generally is that people who haven’t had to struggle don’t always realise that a well functioning state makes the difference not just between the country doing better or worse but between lives being successful or being ruined. It’s as simple as that.
“It’s a very, very high stakes business, politics. It’s also what makes me very impatient with a lot of the small change of party politics. How can anybody be against setting up good schools in poor areas if they knew what it was like to be poor in those areas? Anyone who has grown up on a council estate in Camden who tells me it’s a great idea to have a failing comp rather than a successful academy… no one has ever done that.”
Which brings us back to why he thinks it so morally contemptible that Wilson sent his children to private school.
His fury applies equally to Conservatives today who don’t use the public services they are charged to run and reform. “I think it is just outrageous. They don’t have to go into politics, they can go into other careers. It’s not a left or right thing. It really matters because too much of failed education policy since the war has been the result of ideological ministers who don’t use the institutions that they expect the general public to use and that has been true of the Labour side as well as well as the Tories. Tony Blair was the first – the first! – Prime Minister, the first to send his children to state secondary schools.”
“You cannot do these jobs well, indeed I don’t think you can do them at all in any self-respecting way, unless you live and breathe the public services that you expect the public to use.”
Driven by his own childhood, Adonis does indeed practise what he preaches. His daughters are at a state primary and one is at a local academy in Islington.
And not for nothing does the foreword of his book carry a poignant quote from another Camden Town man, Charles Dickens. “The poor have no childhood. It must be bought and paid for.” Andrew Adonis knows that better than most.