From education to employment

Reporter Daniel Wallis

The recent reshuffling of cabinet positions by Tony Blair has seen some familiar faces go, some new ones turn up, and some experience déjà vu, finding themselves in surroundings strangely familiar.

This is true for Alan Johnson, formerly Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Higher and Further Education and more recently Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who, like the joker in a pack of cards, has been shuffled around so much in his career that he is back where he started: he is now the new education secretary, replacing a discreetly brushed-away Ruth Kelly. He is also MP for Kingston-upon-Hull West and Hessle.

Life and Times of Alan Johnson

Born in 1950, Johnson had a difficult childhood. Unlike his public-school colleagues, he did not have an extensive education, leaving grammar school without O- levels to work and raise his new family. It was around this time that Alan became involved with worker’s rights, joining the Union of Communication Workers at the same time as working as a postman in Slough.

He continued to work in representing workers throughout the next decade, eventually being elected to the National Executive Council of the Union of Communication Workers in 1981. In 1995 he became joint general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers and two years later, with Labour’s landslide, became MP of Kingston-upon-Hull West and Hessle, a post he used to highlight the problems of trawler fishermen in the area as their industry declined.

Johnson was working for the Trade and Industry Select Committee when he was made Private Parliamentary Secretary to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1997. Over the next nine years he would be PPS to the Paymaster General, Minister for Competitiveness at Trade and Industry, Minister of State for Employment Relations and Regions, then Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Higher and Further Education, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, then back to Trade and Industry as Secretary of State, and now, doubling back yet again, Secretary of State for Work and Skills. If he is not careful, he may soon find himself back delivering letters in Slough! He remains a firm Blairite, voting strongly in favour of the Iraq War, Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, the introduction of ID cards and the controversial student top-up fees.

NUS Welcome Cautiously

The National Union of Students (NUS) has welcomed Johnson back to his former stomping grounds in education. NUS president Kat Fletcher said: “We are looking forward to working with Alan Johnson again”¦ (we) hope that Alan will use his position to ensure that the recommendations for a strengthened student voice in the sector are fully implemented.”

Fletcher, however, is not distracted by the rapidly shuffling deck that is the cabinet; Johnson’s last term in education has not been forgotten. “NUS will be watching closely to see how he will tackle the problems of declining student numbers and increasing student hardship, a result of the Higher Education Act he pushed through in his previous role,” she added, and, obviously referring to Johnson’s role in the introduction of top-up fees, continued with “We look forward to meeting with him regularly to ensure that fair access can be maintained despite the introduction of increased fees. Its vital that the interests of students are at the core of future Government planning and legislation.”

Johnson, therefore, has an especially sensitive job before him; education, like elephants, never forgets.

Daniel Wallis

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