POLITICS
13/09/2012 12:43 BST | Updated 19/09/2012 12:17 BST

Andrew Adonis, Former Labour Minister And Education Obsessive, Speaks To HuffPost

People commonly believe that the character of Lord Julius Nicholson in The Thick Of It is based on Andrew Adonis - or Lord Adonis to give him his proper title. The two men are both seen as rarefied blue-skies types, able to think the unthinkable because they don't have to face the ballot box like MPs do.

And while these things might be true to a point about Adonis, that's where the paralells with Julius end. For whereas the fictional New Labour peer came across as a plummy champagne socialist, Adonis, a Children's Minister under Tony Blair, reveals in his new book Education, Education, Education that he grew up in care homes. His father, a lone parent, spent every waking moment working. Adonis was raised by three institutions in north London and Oxfordshire, and credits a few individuals working in those children's homes and the schools he attended for his success.

"I've never talked about it in the past, I agonised about whether or not to say it," Adonis tells me. "But I thought that since I was writing a book about education, people needed to understand why it was so important to me personally. But what I wanted to make clear that although I was in care, I was essentially brought up by the state and it worked for me. And that is an optimistic lesson."

Adonis is sipping soup in his Lords office not far from Parliament as he talks about his early life. He talks incredibly fast - 30 minutes of conversation with him yield twice the number of words and thoughts you'd expect from another politician. Stopping his brain from skipping from one expansive thought to another seems like something he's trained himself to do, to avoid bamboozling those around him. He's widely viewed as one of the most intelligent people in modern politics, and yet he remains outwardly one of the most modest.

"The individuals who intervened in my life, transformed it, didn't do so in a vacuum," he says. "One was a manager of a children's home, a whole string of them were teachers. What they had in common was that they worked in successful institutions. The reason why I'm so passionate about turning around failing schools is that children who have the misfortune to go to unsucccessful institutions are far less likely to come across the individuals who can transform their lives."

But there is a barely-concealed anger which runs through Adonis' book; anger at the teachers' union leaders who refused to allow any reforms for decades, at the hapless local authority bosses who saw no point in giving kids a proper education because there were no jobs locally anyway, the politicians who tore up the grammar/secondary modern system but essentially ensured the new comprehensives were secondary moderns in all but name. None are spared what is often a surprisingly pithy and merciless takedown by Adonis. Is it accurate to say this mild-mannered man is secretly furious at the generations of wasted opportunity?

"What I find so depressing is that this is where you get the do-nothing left and the do-nothing right coming together," he says. "The do-nothing left who want to excuse the fact that schools are under-preforming by blaming it all on the parents. And the do-nothing right that say it's just a reality that children from poor backgrounds are not going to succeed. This unholy alliance between the two is one of the big things that's been holding back education reform."

Adonis also spares some ire for Whitehall civil servants, who in his view often tended to refuse to "call a spade a spade", peppering education policy documents with euphemisms, seeking to water-down his attempts to restrict the calibre of graduates becoming teachers.

"We had a big problem in education, with nearly half of the comprehensives essentially failing," he says. "But what you need to seek to do is build as wide as possible a concensus about the solutions. What I don't believe in is consensus around lowest common denominator waffle or party claptrap. And unfortunately in education we had far too much of that for generations"

Adonis might speak fast, but rarely does he slip into Whitehall waffle or esoteric theories. He is very easy to understand, as is his book. Because unlike Julius from The Thick of It, Adonis didn't dream up education policies from inside a Westminster silo. He went out and visited failing schools every Thursday and Friday. As such his book is filled with examples of visionary head teachers and troubled schools that were turned around. And although they are not named and shamed, Adonis also references those who resisted reform, from the local authority dinosaurs who didn't see the point, to head teachers who locked Adonis in a room because he'd turned up for a visit when they weren't expecting him.

"This goes to the heart of the problem," he says when we discuss being temporarily incarcerated. "The headteacher didn't want me going around the school without education officials in tow. I was put in a room while re-enforcements were summoned from the Town Hall. That is quite typical. Go around academies and you find headteachers filled with pride. No way would they need local authority officials to be there before they'd show you around. That explifies the transformation."

So that head teacher had been wedded to the old model? "Yeah, and they were embarrassed because none of their kids were getting good GCSEs. There was a fundamental mindset issue. You could have senior managers in local authority telling you there was no point in kids in that area getting a decent education because there were no jobs for them to go into. I'm glad to say we've largely addressed that."

Adonis describes himself as "the teacher's friend", but his book documents tensions between Labour and the teaching unions over the roll-out of academies. Nothing like as bad as the current state of government-teacher relations, granted, but I suggest to him that the teacher's unions were at times a roadblock to reform.

"You have to differentiate between the official position of teachers unions and the real positions of their leaders," he replies, after pausing for a moment. "Generally speaking, the official positions of the teachers unions aren't favourable to reform, however I've lost count of the number of conversations I've had with union general secretaries about what needs to change.

"The best way to get on side with teachers' union leaders is to start talking to them about the education of their own children. What they thought of the schools their children were going to, and how they could improve. And once you start talking to them as parents rather than union leaders you often get a very different story. "

The academies programme championed by Adonis is a policy that's been continued by the Tories and if anything accelerated by Michael Gove. But Adonis admits New Labour didn't get it right the first time - the first few years of the Blair era saw a frenetic process of hiring new teachers, but this didn't raise standards because the institutions the teachers were going into were not fixed. "It took us a long time to get to the transformational policy," he says, a policy he's clearly pleased has been embraced by Michael Gove. Adonis thinks broadly speaking the coalition is "doing the right thing" on education, though he warns that Gove's putative plan to restore something like the O-Level/CSE model would be a "big mistake".

Adonis also worries that the Tories have too readily demonised teachers, and that this is preventing ministers like Michael Gove from being taken seriously. "Those teachers who are not up to the job clearly need to leave, but in my experience that's a very tiny proportion of teachers," says Adonis. "What most teachers need is very strong leadership and motivation, and when it comes to recruiting teachers you want to have the biggest possible pool possible."

It's sometimes hard to gauge whether Education, Education, Education is a potential party-political manifesto for driving further change through England's school system, or the literary equivalent of Adonis' hand on the shoulders of the next generation of politicians. There's a sense that the final chapters of the book are a precis of all the things Adonis learned during his time as children's minister - that failure isn't a bad thing if you learn from it, that good teachers need to be paid good wages, that A-levels need reforming to make them internationally competitive.

Above all one comes away from the book with Adonis' radical ideas about both what a school is and what it's for. "Parents who've not had an education themselves find it hard to explain to their children what a decent education involves, and I completely understand that," he says. "Parents themselves need to be educated by schools about what sort of education they should expect for their children. I do think there's a heavy responsibility of the school. And that's a tough business but the very best schools do it."

Education, Education, Education is on sale now from Biteback Press with a RRP of £12.99