Neil Carmichael on … grammar schools, Ofsted, hedgehogs and runner beans

Classroom

A scroll through Neil Carmichael’s tweets reveals he’s a good humoured man who is fond of hedgehogs.

There’s nothing hugely illuminating about the world of education, but the Tory MP for Stroud and new chair of the Commons education select committee is happy to retweet an appeal by the Stroud Cats Protection charity, which is currently caring for 43 kittens and is running out of kitten food.

He likes growing vegetables too. Back in April, he tweeted: “Today I’ve planted seed potatoes, varieties included Duke of York and Charlotte”. A more recent update adds: “Pleased with Duke of York potatoes – cropping well and quite tasty.”

Most of it is the routine fare of a local MP in the runup to a general election, but his tweets are pleasingly peppered with “delighted”, “thrilled”, “brilliant”, “excellent”, “great” and “fabulous”. He celebrates the opening of a new restaurant in Stroud called Chicken Peri Peri saying: “Chicken peri peri is a fabulous meal so best wishes for your venture.”

Others are warm about him in return. Historian Tom Holland tweets: “I like the cut of @stroud_neil’s jib. ‘I think hedgehogs are beautiful,’ he says. This is the kind of MP the country needs.”

Carmichael is not new to the education committee. He was a member in the last parliament, but as the new chair – taking over from fellow Tory Graham Stuart – he will now be responsible for steering it over the next five years as it seeks to scrutinise the policies, administration and spending of the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and work of schools watchdog Ofsted.

In the last parliament the committee held inquiries into alleged extremism in Birmingham schools (of which more later); into the academies and free school programme, sex and relationships education and underachievement among white working-class children. The overarching theme was about narrowing the gap for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the committee’s findings sometimes brought it into conflict with government.

This time round, Carmichael has signalled he would like to focus on Britain’s productivity gap and what schools should be doing to make sure that pupils have the right skills, so when they join the workforce they are better equipped to boost economic productivity. As Carmichael points out, the UK’s output lags far behind other G7 economies (we are 25% behind Germany, for example). And as a theme, it chimes neatly with George Osborne’s productivity plan outlined last week in the wake of the budget.

The new chairman is happy enough to talk about young people’s mental health, about coasting schools, grammar schools, Trojan horse and fairer schools funding, but it is “productivity” that gets his pulse racing. Note, this is a man whose hobbies include refurbishing a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor and who organises an annual festival of manufacturing and engineering in his constituency called Festomane.

Carmichael talks about “a pipeline” of students equipped for the world of work, and an “education framework” to get young people into middle management. To this end, he wants to establish a joint inquiry with the business, innovation and skills select committee to address the productivity gap. The education committee had its inaugural meeting last week and agreed in principle to the chairman’s plan.

Carmichael grew up in Northumberland, where his family were farmers; he went to a rural primary school before boarding at St Peter’s, an independent school in York that dates back to AD627 and includes among its alumni Guy Fawkes, cricketer Jonny Bairstow and actor Greg Wise. Today to send your son to board would cost £27,375 a year. Carmichael liked maths and history; he didn’t excel at sport but enjoyed walking, played squash and was interested in politics.

When he was 16 his father took him to see Ted Heath, who was visiting Morpeth town hall. When the young Carmichael was unexpectedly introduced, Heath instantly recognised the name. “You’ve written to me about incomes policy,” he said smartly. Carmichael cannot hide his delight at this story. “He was genuinely interested in what I had to say,” he says, and remains a devoted fan of the former prime minister to this day.

Carmichael studied politics at Nottingham University, then returned to agriculture, building up a large “suckler cow” herd, as well as sheep and grassland farming, and was elected to parliament in 2010. He still owns a farm in Northumberland. A passionate pro-European, he is married to a Frenchwoman called Laurence who is a researcher and lecturer in health and planning at the University of the West of England; they have twin daughters, Alicia and Rebecca, who are 17, and 18-year-old James, who is awaiting A-level results and hopes to study physics at Exeter. All three attend grammar schools; Carmichael was chair of governors at his son’s school where he controversially removed the head, and he remains an unashamed supporter of grammar schools. “I think they play a role,” he says, “But the important thing is to think about the other 26,000 schools.”

Pressed on the fraught question of whether grammar schools help or hinder social mobility, he says: “Ted Heath was the son of a carpenter and he became prime minister via a grammar school. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer – she became prime minister via a grammar school. I would argue that grammar schools have played their part.”

He supports controversial plans under consideration by Morgan, to expand existing grammar schools,in particular the Weald of Kent girls’ grammar school in Tonbridge, which wants to open what it describes as an annexe in Sevenoaks seven miles away. “I am happy for grammar schools to expand but I don’t think we need new grammar schools,” he says.

Looking at future business, Carmichael says the committee will want to examine the widening role of regional schools commissioners, and in particular their role in the government’s drive to crack down on “coasting” schools. The government has said they will be turned into academies if RSCs are not convinced there is a credible plan in place to improve performance. Critics have raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest, since RSCs are evaluated on the basis of how many schools they convert into academies. “I accept it’s an issue,” says Carmichael.

But he likes the fact that schools will be judged on their performance over three years and what he calls the “double whammy” of Ofsted inspections and a data-led approach to assessing whether or not a school is coasting. “Obviously we want to get it right,” he says, adding: “I’ve not seen a better mechanism than what’s roughly proposed by the government.”

He also hopes the committee will play a significant role in coming up with fairer funding for schools – currently schools in neighbouring areas see huge disparities in funding per pupil and there is growing demand for an overhaul of the system. He likes Ofsted; the chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has “given good leadership”, and is very hot on governors having the right skills set and the importance of good governance.

Which brings us to the Trojan horse allegations about Islamist extremism in a small number of Birmingham schools, which were investigated by Carmichael and his colleagues on the last committee. Its resulting report was highly critical of the Department for Education, concluding that “no evidence of extremism or radicalisation, apart from a single isolated incident, was found by any of the inquiries and there was no evidence of a sustained plot nor of a similar situation pertaining elsewhere in the country”. It further accused the DfE of a “worrying and wasteful lack of coordination”.

Last month the DfE delivered a furious official response, accusing MPs on the committee of playing down the seriousness of events in Birmingham, which risked “undermining” efforts to tackle Islamist extremism. Carmichael seems rather stung by the response. “I thought our report was interesting,” he says hesitantly, “but things move on. They certainly have done since we produced our report. In the last six months we’ve seen more and more families and children heading off to Syria and elsewhere.

“I think that’s a signal that really we’ve got to think very carefully about the influences that are brought to bear on families and children. We do need to constantly keep an eye on this whole question of radicalisation.”

In September, both Morgan and Ofsted chief, Michael Wilshaw, will be called to appear before the committee. Carmichael has lots he wants to ask; his committee colleagues (eight women and two men) will have their own priorities. Meanwhile, over the summer, the chairman will be tending his beloved Massey Ferguson, his potatoes, his broad beans, herbs and lettuces. There will be family trips to Northumberland, Wales and the Belgian Grand Prix – Formula One is another passion. Then, it’s down to business.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sally Weale, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th July 2015 07.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010