Ex-head's learning curve

July 4, 1997

Huw Richards talks to the new education shadows as the Tories slide off the road

Phil Willis is having to practise lifelong learning as well as speak on it in the House of Commons.

Mr Willis, 55, who before the election was a secondary school head in Leeds, is having to adjust to his new role as Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough and as the party's frontbench higher education spokesman.

Don Foster, who played an effective, high-profile role in the last Parliament, retains his job as education spokesman. But Lib Dem success in the election has given him the comparative luxury of backup spokespeople for the first time.

Mr Willis, the first Liberal to win Harrogate since 1906, will speak on further and higher education, while Lembit Opik takes responsibility for training and employment.

Mr Willis has already expressed concern that the Dearing report and subsequent debate will be dominated by funding at the expense of longer-term issues.

"Robbins created a vision for the system as a whole for the next two decades," he said. "The shape and form of the system and the system of funding adopted have to follow from that coherent, overall vision. My fear is that the serious worries over funding will mean those broader issues are lost."

Mr Willis's experience of running a mainly working-class 1,600-pupil school has reinforced his views on student access and on teacher training.

"University expansion has been one of the great successes of the past ten years - I'm surprised that the Conservatives did not make more of it - but it has been largely a matter of getting the middle classes into university. The challenge will be to get the next ten to 15 per cent into higher education."

Mr Willis also warned against "short cuts" in teacher training, when, he says, "one of the things you need to persuade people into the profession is a decent quality training."

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