One of the growing realisations as I am reading these Ed Sec biographies is how many people don’t actually want the job. Some, like George Tomlinson, were absolutely delighted with it. Others, like Quintin Hogg and Shirley Williams were not.

Given that Williams served as a Junior Minister in Education throughout the 60s I was convinced she would be thrilled when finally given the opportunity to be Ed Sec of State. Personal circumstance, however, meant she was not. This is how she explains her appointment:

“I was in New York when the telephone rand in my hotel room. It was the Prime Minister. He mentioned Education and Science. I was reluctant. Rebecca (Williams’ daughter) was at a voluntary-aided school in a part of London which at that time was still selective. The Inner London Education Authority, pursuing the policy of introducing comprehensive schools, had decided that voluntary-aided schools would have to choose between going independent and becoming comprehensive, a choice much resented by the parents at her school. At one or two meetings I had attended to support the choice of going comprehensive. I had encountered their anger. A few parents had sworn and spat at me. This was not something entirely new in my experience, but I was worried for my daughter.

I told Jim (Callaghan) it would be difficult. He was getting understandably irritated. ‘You’re very hard to please,’ he said. I knew I couldn’t expect him to leaf his way through every possible Cabinet post, like someone trying to sell a suit, so I agreed to do it.”

Reluctant to take the role it is interesting that Williams is often forgotten in this role. When talking with people about Ed Secs she rarely gets mentioned. In fact, people are often surprised she ever held the role. Given her period in office was not short – at 967 days she is 5 months above average – the fact she has been erased from so many people’s memory is even more odd.

I am therefore starting to wonder if a politician’s initial feelings about the role of Ed Sec then influences whether or not they do it well. The ones who were thrilled seem also to be the ones who went on to achieve the most whereas those who were lacklustre about their appointment at the outset seem only to have treated the role in a perfunctory manner.

Are there any exceptions to this rule?

Shirley Willliams

Being away from home this week I’ve started on Shirley Williams’ biography because it’s the only one I have paperback (and so is easy to carry). Luckily, it’s brilliant.

During a several hour flight delay the story of her early life carried me away from a dull airport gate and into her riproaring childhood. From the outset Williams was adventurer, flinging herself into mischief whenever possible, and remaining unflummoxed even in the face of her evacuation to Minnesota when aged only 9 (accompanied solely by her 12 year old brother). Williams enjoyed the free-spirited nature of school life that she found in the US – no uniforms, and a feeling that a child’s social life was important.

Returning to England in 1943, she found school here quite different. She does talk somewhat positively of St. Paul’s Girls School, at least about its teaching:

“Academically, St. Paul’s was outstanding. It encouraged its pupils to engage in discussion with the teachers and with one another, not a common phenomenon in girls’ schools sixty years ago. The emphasis was on academic and artistic excellence. The school yielded nothing to conventional views about the limited capacity of girls to master science and mathematics.”

The strict discipline, however, was too much for Williams:

I dreamed up ways of breaking school rules and shocking my teachers, not least to impress schoolfellows. I was good at climbing, so I shinned up the lead pipes that clung to the side of the science block to the third story. I recall staring into the window of the chemistry class, only to confront the appalled expression of the chemistry teacher. I must have seemed as much nightmare as reality.”

On another occasion she crept on the school stage and began grimacing behind the head who was making a speech, much amusing the other pupils.

So far Williams is the first Ed Sec whose biography talks of flagrant rule-breaking. Even those not enthusiastic about school (e.g. Hogg) at least felt order was important. I am excited to see whether  this has an impact on her later dealings at the DfE.

I’m currently finishing Quintin Hogg’s “The Door Wherein I Went” which started off horribly but actually got quite good. He’s funny. Much funnier than expected.

But my mind got a little distracted yesterday when a copy of Edward Short’s “I Knew My Place” arrived. Disappointingly, the blurb says the book is only about the first ten years of his life. Not particularly useful when you’re trying to assess someone’s time in political office.

Unperturbed I flicked open the book and glanced at the first thing I saw, which just so happened to be this:

“About ten years later I was cycling to Appleby and I saw cycling up a  hill about a hundred yards ahead of me, Eddie Robson, a boy of my own  age from New Hall farm, with whom I was friendly. A huge, laden lorry pulling an equally laden trailer passed me. When it reached Eddie it had been slowed down to a crawl by the steep gradient and, no doubt wanting to save himself a lot of pedalling over the remaining mile and a half into Appleby, he got hold of a tarpaulin rope but, tragically as it turned out, on the near side of the trailer. The last I saw of him alive was when he disappeared over the brow of the hill with the lorry gathering speed.

A few minutes later I breasted the hill myself and found him lying in an enormous pool of blood, his head and the upper part of his body pulverized by the wheel which had passed over him. The unfortunate driver was quite unaware of what had happened and I was alone with the mangled body of my friend. Cars were few and far between in those days. The nearest house was only a quarter of a mile away but I could not leave him though I was sure he was dead. Scarcely knowing what I was doing, my heart going sixty to the dozen, I extricated his body from the grotesquely twisted bicycle. Some dreadful contortion one of the hand grips had penetrated his mouth and was visible through his cheek.

I straightened his body as gently as I could, loosened his shirt and tried, without hope, to find a faint heart beat. But there was nothing -only death, silence, destruction, blood. I sat on the grass verge holding his hand – in retrospect a silly thing to do.”

It was fifteen minutes before a car helped Short and took the body of Eddie down to the village. About fifteen minutes after that Short was violently sick and then he cried and cried. He wrote:

“The world on that fine morning looked very grey – not the soft diffused grey of the sky or the fells but a harsh, oppressive great, and I felt that at the heart of it all was a great well of unassuagable sorrow into which I peered that morning.”

Michael Gove2Today is Michael Gove’s birthday. Huzzah!

To celebrate, here are some facts you might not know…

  1. Michael Gove turns 46 today. This is young by Ed Sec standards. The average age on entry is 50.
  2. The only other Ed Sec to turn 46 while in post is….. Margaret Thatcher.
  3. Gove is currently the 7th longest-serving Education Secretary having recently overtaken Kenneth Baker.
  4. He has another ~160 days before he steals 6th place (from Thatcher).
  5. He is the first Ed Sec in 46 years to have previously been President of the Oxford Union. Four other Ed Secs have held that role (Quintin Hogg, Michael Stewart, Edward Boyle & Anthony Crosland).
  6. He is the second Education Secretary to be born in Edinburgh. The first was Florence Horsbrugh, born in 1889 (79 years before Gove).
  7. He is the only Ed Sec known to have been raised from birth by adoptive parents.
  8. The most common degree subject for an Ed Sec is History. Second is Politics. Gove is unique in having studied English.
  9. He shares his birthday week with past-Ed Secs Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle (both also past-Ox Union Presidents)
  10. Gove has said he shall never stand as leader of the Conservative Party.

In 2003, Charles Clarke (Lab) whipped up a fury when he allegedly said:

“I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them”

According to this Guardian article, the transcript of the occasion reflects a different point of view. However, the article states that Clarke was known to argue that ‘learning for its own sake’ is “a bit dodgy”.

It was therefore quite a surprise to discover this week that Charles Clarke is now a Visiting Professor of Religion & Faith at Lancaster University where he teaches a “range of undergraduate and postgraduate modules”.

Definitely not for learning’s sake though, right Mr. Clarke?

Charles Clarke Professor

Speculation is rife about a September Cabinet re-shuffle. If Gove leaves education, where might he go next?

Using the scientific medium of Wikipedia, it seems 12 of the 31 Ed Secs never transitioned to other roles (though many continued as MPs or Peers).

Since the early 90s, Home Secretary became a popular move. Not only have three Ed Secs in the past 25 years moved straight into this role, Alan Johnson also made it there after Health and Ed Balls took position as Shadow Home Secretary before becoming Shadow Chancellor (though admittedly that was only for 3 months).

Women seem to have done particularly poorly in moves, with only Ruth Kelly keeping a Ministerial position while still in power. However Margaret Thatcher did move from being Ed Sec to being Leader of the Conservative Party, which turned out to be a very important move indeed!

Subsequent roles taken by Ed Secs…..

1 Rab Butler Chancellor of the Exchequer
2 Richard Law
3 Ellen Wilkinson
4 George Tomlinson  
5 Florence Horsbrugh
6 Geoffrey Lloyd
7 David Eccles (1st time) President of the Board of Trade(2nd time) Paymaster General & Minister for the Arts
8 Edward Boyle
9 Quintin Hogg Lord President of the Council
10 Michael Stewart Secretary of State for Economic Affairs
11 Anthony Crosland Secretary of State for Local Government & Regional Planning
12 Patrick Gordon Walker
13 Edward Short Leader of the House of Commons/Lord President of the Council
14 Margaret Thatcher Leader of the Conservative Party
15 Reg Prentice Minister of State for Overseas Development
16 Fred Mulley Secretary of State for Defence
17 Shirley Williams
18 Mark Carlisle
19 Keith Joseph
20 Kenneth Baker Chairman of the Conservative Party
21 John MacGregor Leader of the House of Commons/Lord President of the Council
22 Kenneth Clarke Home Secretary
23 John Patten
24 Gillian Shephard Shadow Secretary of State for Education
25 David Blunkett Home Secretary
26 Estelle Morris
27 Charles Clarke Home Secretary
28 Ruth Kelly Minister for Women
29 Alan Johnson Secretary of State for Health
30 Edward Balls Shadow Secretary of State for Education
31 Michael Gove ??

In 1957 Quintin Hogg reluctantly took on the role of Education Minister. He did not want it.

“I next found myself summoned by the new Prime Minister and asked to join the Cabinet as Minister of Education. After four months of office this was promotion with a vengeance. But strangely enough I was not at all pleased. I had given my heart to the Navy, and believed I was popular. Such change is not good for morale, and I was afraid that there were people who would accuse me of careerism, as of course they did.”

Hogg nevertheless says he threw himself into the role. One major problem was a pressing need for more school buildings due to high birthrates and the raising of the school leaving age. The situation facing Hogg sounds remarkably like the one facing Gove when he entered office in 2010.

“The shortage of cash was intensified by the fact that the actual expenditure on school building had to be incurred by the local authorities who were small, numerous (146 in my time, I think), sometimes absurdly self-centered, often extravagant, and competitive with one another.

I found that they were actually driving the cost of school building up in a variety of different ways. They tended to employ their own architects with the result that their design were markedly more costly than we knew to be necessary, and had none of the advantages of large-scale production, which even in a labour intensive industry like building, can greatly reduce costs.”

Hogg could have cancelled the projects, just like Gove. But he took another path. Instead he found ways to link schools with similar problems – e.g. all schools with subsidence issues worked together on one design. He did so not by telling them they had to work together, but by making them think it was their idea and giving lots of public credit for it.

“On this idea was founded the first consortium of school building and authorities and, modestly, I claim the credit for it now. The secret, I may say, was that at the time I claimed none.”

Perhaps, in 2010, if Gove had instead asked local authorities to convene the schools together and collectively they had prioritised building needs, the government could still have only given out monies now allocated for Priority Schools but it would have been based on the ideas of what local people needed, and might have encouraged co-operation that would reduce cost. It would also have been a more humane approach to deciding which young people would be stuck in squalor, than simply scrubbing names off a list inside a Westminster Ivory Tower.

Florence HorsbrughFlorence Gertrude Horsbrugh, Baroness Horsbrugh, GBE, PC

Born: 13 October 1889

Died: 6 December 1969 (aged 80)

Party: Conservative

Dates as Education Minister: 2 Nov 1951 – 18 Oct 1954 (1082 days)

Age when Minister: 62 yrs (0m) to 65 yrs (0m)

Best Fact: The first woman to hold a Cabinet seat in a Conservative government

Born in Edinburgh to an accountant father she was educated at Landsdowne House and St. Hilda’s in Folkestone, before completing a Liberal Arts education at Mills College in California.

Her initial rise to prominence was through her work as head of the Ministry of Munitions canteen during the First World War.  During this time she created a ‘travelling kitchen’ that could feed people after the National Kitchens shut, and she even managed to secure an invite to feed the Queen.

In 1931 she overturned a 14,000 Labour majority to become MP in Dundee and in 1939 gained a junior position as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Health in 1939. During this time she oversaw the evacuation of children and the beginning of NHS reforms.

After losing her seat in 1945 she stood, and won, a seat in Manchester’s Moss Side in 1950 (can’t work out if this is even more surprising than a Conservative winning Dundee) . Shortly afterwards she became Education Secretary.

Unfortunately Horsbrugh inherited a bad lot. Churchill’s 1951 government put housing as its top priority and the budget for education was slashed right at the moment that the raising of the school leaving age and the 1946 baby boom were felt in force. The lack of money for school buildings meant over-crowding and squalor. In 1954 the TES argued that her policies were vague and she suffered ‘a want of courage’.

She left office in 1954, aged 65. In 1959 she took up residence in the House of Lords.

Is she a contender for ‘greatest’ ever education secretary? Highly unlikely.

Over the weekend I took part in some discussions about Matt Damon’s choice to send his children to private school (shhh…i’ll get to the history in a minute).

Many people were dismayed at Damon because he advocates hard for US state schools (see below)

And there was a feeling that this sort of hypocrisy is typical among politicians:

No doubt many education Secretaries have put their children through private establishments while simultaneously advocating for state schools. But to think that all politicians are inevitably hypocritical is to be overly pessimistic.

Reading Quintin Hogg’s biography last week I was stunned by a story which showed a remarkable lack of hypocrisy. It went like this:

Quintin Hogg

I joined the army by the back door in September 1939, just after war was declared. I do not wish here to say anything of my military career, which was sufficiently undistinguished. But I do make the point in my own favour that, having voted for the war in Parliament, I showed my willingness from the first to expose myself in it in an infantry battalion, and not in an administrative job, and, in the event, I did, in fact, have the honour to lead an infantry platoon in a minor battle and numerous night patrols in the desert in the summer of 1941.

That Hogg traded his comfy Commons position for the infantry is quite a remarkable act of courage and one that restores at least a little faith in politicians. Hogg also returned home from war to find his wife ‘not alone’ but instead ‘in the company of Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Head of Staff’. That story, however, is for another day….

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