Charles Clarke’s first year as education secretary has certainly been interesting. His department has been at the heart of two of the most contentious rows of the past year: top-up fees and school redundancies. At the same time, the Tories are determined to prove that public services can’t deliver, so Clarke’s challenge is to prove them wrong by demonstrating excellence in our education system.

But there is no sign of strain showing from navigating these storms. He bats away criticism and repeatedly focuses on how his department is creating new policies to give people who have previously had to bump through life without qualifications what they need to fulfil their ambitions.

He is particularly passionate about lifelong learning: ‘We are going through a process of establishing about 25 sector skills councils right across the whole economy. What that does is get employers involved in the education system and addressing what the skills issues are. That requires employees’ time off for training and proper courses.

‘For each sector you have a range of policies, courses and resources available. Some come from the state, some from the individual, some from the employer. They enable individuals throughout their life, whether they’re a computer programmer, a personal assistant or whatever, to develop their own skills as they move forward.’

By allowing people to top up their skills and knowledge throughout their careers, this vision of how the workplace can be transformed into a centre of continuous learning provides one answer to the insecurity that increasingly plagues employees. It certainly speaks to the Labour tradition of equipping working people with knowledge as their most powerful tool.

However, not everyone is in work – or at least in full-time work. Charles Clarke is clearly enthused by another new scheme to draw others in:

‘At schools we have seen some really positive things with family learning, where parents, mostly women, bring their children to school and then study at school themselves and deal with the skills they themselves have not had. That sort of contact with school is one we are expanding significantly. It means that many of the people who missed out on education themselves, leaving school at sixteen, now have a re-entry point to develop their basic skills.’

When questioned about this year’s teacher redundancies, Clarke is combative and clear about what the department must now do. ‘First, there’s been massive exaggeration of redundancies this year; it’s of about the order of previous years. We’ll see the final figures at the beginning of next year when the statistics come through, but I think it’s been significantly overstated.

‘That said, there were financial difficulties in a large number of schools. I am taking the steps to deal with it and will be making a statement in the next couple of weeks. The fact that those problems have led to a loss of confidence in certain areas has been problematic, so my job is to restore confidence in schools so that the funding is there to achieve what they need to do.’

In his role in charge of Britain’s schools he has a lot of settled perceptions to battle with, both from left and right. He gives short shrift to both sets of prejudices.

So when confronted with the criticism that it is impossible to expel difficult pupils he is adamant. ‘I don’t think it’s true.’ The new procedures of accountability and consultation that Labour have put in place are designed to be a backstop. ‘It is important to look at the needs of each child, even the most disruptive. They’re precisely the people who make our hardcore of committed criminal offenders who we have to find ways of dealing with.’ So, tough on the causes of crime…

He goes on to talk about his favourite model of discipline, currently being rolled out across all schools. ‘The way to make it happen is to build a school climate where everyone feels committed to making the secure and disciplined atmosphere you are describing.’ Simply put, discipline lies in a school taking responsibility for itself. As an idea, this is refreshingly ungimmicky and decentralised. Under the often bellicose exterior, it’s clear that Clarke’s instincts are liberal, except that he has as little time for the prejudices of the left as the right.

When asked whether selection will always lead to sink schools, he will not wear it for a moment. ‘There is very little selection in state schools, though people talk about it. Ninety-eight percent of specialist schools don’t have selection of any description. I think sink schools arise when a school is doing poorly and parents, understanding it’s doing poorly, look for other schools in the locality.’

Again, he does not offer a pat answer: ‘The way out of sink schools is to turn them around so they start performing well. Yesterday I was told about the example of a school that Ofsted identified as a failing school in 1999. It was a total disaster, and on special measures. Now, in 2003, they have 67 percent A to C grades at GCSE – a real improvement.’

Erosion of standards is also an abiding fear in higher education. In particular, as students become high-paying consumers of education and universities are chasing their money, do we create a market dynamic that pushes standards down?

‘You do create a market pressure, that’s true. But it doesn’t follow that the market pressure drives standards down. In fact, I think it will have the opposite effect: of making university courses more relevant to students and what they themselves are trying to do. It will force universities to be much more aware of the quality of their teaching. And I would argue that one of the criticisms of universities at the moment is they focus to such an extent on research, right across the whole range.’

Over the past year the sands have shifted under the government’s top-up fees policy. We are now looking at fees being paid back through the tax system. But Charles Clarke refutes any suggestion that we now have a graduate tax.

‘The individual is paying their own costs and not other peoples’ costs. It’s fairer that people should pay for themselves. And my own view is that if you are going to rectify economic inequalities the way to do it is through the tax system as a whole rather than through a particular graduate tax.’

He points out another crucial difference: ‘The money goes direct to the universities and not to the state and so it means that the universities have the freedom that a pure graduate tax wouldn’t offer.’

But he does concede that there are great similarities: ‘It is like a graduate tax in that graduates pay it, not up front, but through the tax system. This is quite an important change from now. It is paid according to your income – but at a higher initial starting point, so you have to be earning £15,000, not £10,000 as now. And there is also a zero rate of interest.’

Of course, this raises another question. If Labour’s policy has evolved into an equitable and workable system, then why does it still look so defensive on this issue? Why are the opposition making all the running with hare-brained schemes? Clarke says the real fight is to come.

‘We are at a pre-legislation point and it would be wrong to try and communicate publicly a particular scheme until parliament has decided. In my view, the time for those arguments will be in the run-up to the next election campaign, rather than purely in dealing with legislation.’

Labour’s top-up fee policy has undoubtedly had a tricky birth. It has evolved hugely since the first leak came out of Downing Street shortly after the last election. But will it ever be popular? The Prime Minister promised unprecedented national consultation – what happens if that reveals that the British public really do not want this policy? Will it be scrapped?

‘We will proceed with this proposal and the bill will go before parliament, subject to Queen’s decision, in this parliament. The Prime Minister’s consultation is about ways of putting it into place fairly, so we will certainly listen to what people have to say about what kind of incentives are needed to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university, about what kind of steps you take to remove any disincentives that might exist.

‘But the idea that we might go back and say, actually, graduates shouldn’t contribute a part of the cost of their university education is not a course that we’ll go down. We will definitely be bringing that bill in.’

Clarke on his critics
‘I think the Tories are in a completely impossible position on higher education funding – you don’t need me to tell you that. If you talk to many leading Tories they think their front bench is completely bananas. They are not just saying that for political reasons either, it’s not just Portillistas. Serious people in higher education think it’s mad. I don’t think the Tory position will even last until Christmas – it will steadily come off the rails. The Lib Dems are in a classic position. This issue is number 43 on their list of targets for what the extra rate of tax will raise. And they are downplaying now their drive for people to go to their home university, but that’s still what they want.

My reassurance to the middle classes is that decisions about entrance will be taken by universities, on the basis of ability. That is the way it should be. If there are any middle-class people who believe that by paying for their child to go to private school they guarantee a place at university, I have to disillusion them. Their child – however much they’ve spent on their education – has to pass exams to go there, just like everybody else. But we won’t have a quota system. OFFA [the new access monitoring body] will have a whole series of measures to encourage children from poorer homes to be able to go to university. That’s as it should be, because all the evidence suggests that people from poorer backgrounds aren’t applying as much as they could to the top research universities, and we need to encourage that.’

Clarke on testing
‘I think that most of the criticisms about testing have not much substance at all [on the day of the interview the Commons Education Select Committee had accused the government of over-testing pupils]. There are points in pupils’ and parents’ lives when they feel under great pressure. There are parents that put great pressure on children, unfortunately. But, actually, if you look at the best schools, those that do best on league tables, they are not putting pressure on anybody, they are just doing it.

It would be a total betrayal of children in the worst-performing areas just to say to them: forget about testing, just do well enough to get to level two key stage two. On the contrary, I think we should intensify our efforts to get them up to level four. However, I do think there is an issue about the assessment system for fourteen to nineteen year-olds. If you take that period of life, it’s important to have a look. And there may be too many strata.’