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FEATURES-CHALLENGING TIMMS

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Juggling the interests of the government, teachers, pupils and the unions to turn the education white paper into la...
Juggling the interests of the government, teachers, pupils and the unions to turn the education white paper into law will be quite a trick. But schools minister Stephen Timms is confident, says Suzanne Simmons-Lewis

Schools minister Stephen Timms says his appointment came as a genuine surprise. Four days after Labour's general election victory, he was clearing up his East Ham constituency campaign office when the call came through from Downing Street.

'I didn't know what the job was going to be until the prime minister told me,' says Mr Timms. 'I was absolutely delighted. It's a really exciting job to have at a time when there is a great deal to be done.'

And that is putting it mildly. Education has taken centre stage in the government's plans to improve public services in its second term of office. It is Mr Timms'

key role to support education secretary Estelle Morris

in her flagship plans to improve standards in secondary schools.

After barely having time to find his feet, Mr Timms has been catapulted into a raging debate involving local government and the unions over the government's controversial and far-reaching plans for education. It is his responsibility to take the subsequent education Bill through the House of Commons.

Opposition to increased private sector involvement, the ring-fencing of education budgets and the chronic shortage of teachers across the country are just some of the issues Mr Timms has already had to negotiate. A few weeks after taking office, he was accused of being an ostrich by teachers' unions over his misplaced optimism that teacher vacancies, which stood at 40,000, would be filled by the September term.

Shortly after, the Department for Education and Skills was forced to back down when the chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson said the teacher shortages were at their highest for four decades.

But these rumblings have not dampened Mr Timms' enthusiasm for the task ahead and he defends the department's relationship with the unions and councils.

'I am very optimistic we can continue to have a constructive relationship. The research we commissioned into teachers' workload was in response to one of the recommendations made by the Teachers Review Body in its report for 2001,' says Mr Timms,

in an attempt to illustrate the listening ear of his department.

'There has been a good response to that study's initial findings. Now we must look at how we can address the difficulties people are concerned about and we will be working very closely with the trade unions and others to make a success of that.'

He adds: 'Criticism around these debates will continue, but we are making good progress with the unions and the LEAs.'

Mr Timms promises councils will not have a diminishing role as some commentators have feared, especially with the threat of compulsory ring-fencing of education budgets looming over them.

'I see local government as having a central role in what we are doing.' But he concedes: 'The nature of the role of local government is going to change. There will be a vital role for LEAs, particularly in the area of school improvement - working with schools in their area to raise standards and bring about the improvements we need.'

He adds: 'But LEAs and local government in general are actually moving away from the old position where they used to employ everybody who was involved, to a more strategic role.'

Although the minister is sure to come under increased flack throughout his time at the DfES, he has certainly been limbering up for the challenge. In his former job as financial secretary to the Treasury he was charged with defending the government's policy on fuel taxation at a time when the whole country almost ground to a halt.

Many moons ago, when he was leader of Newham LBC, he was in the unfortunate position of presiding over some of the country's worst schools.

Mr Timms, 46, has been described by a good deal of his colleagues as 'brainy' - he has a first in mathematics from Cambridge and he has worked as a consultant in the computer and telecoms industry. But his real passion has always been politics. In 1994, he entered the House of Commons after winning a by-election for the Newham North East Constituency and became MP for East Ham in 1997. He has held various junior ministerial posts in the Department for Social Security and the former Department for Education and Employment.

For this year at least, the minister's eyes will focus squarely on the mammoth task of turning the white paper into legislation - he hopes with the agreement and support of all interested parties. It is a challenge that depends greatly on his ability to pacify the unions over the contentious issue of increased privatisation in schools.

So far, Mr Timms has not fared too well. When the white paper was due to be launched in the spring, the minister gave a frank and revealing interview. He said it would 'pave the way for schools on the front line to try out new ideas'. He explained that he expected the emerging education market to grow and hinted that subject departments could be contracted out for a time or maybe indefinitely.

But following the ensuing uproar by the unions, the white paper was mysteriously delayed and the published version stops short of these predictions.

However Mr Timms has bitten the bullet and insists he is confident the private sector and other partners will have a key role to play in raising standards in education.

'I think there has been undue concern about all of

this in some quarters,' he says. 'To bring about the change we need to see in education, we must ensure schools have at their disposal every possible lever

that can help.'

He warns: 'If there are resources available in the private sector to help a school improve, it's wrong to say: 'Well, sorry you can't use this because it is in the private sector'.'

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