At the end of his first full parliamentary session as leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair looks worn. A near leafless weeping fig tree, one of two pieces of vegetation unfortunate enough to have found their way into his unimposing office, is h astily removed from camera-shot.
It takes only one question, however, to bring Blair to the edge of his seat in a state of full animation. Just what does he think of those Labour traditionalists who have criticised his decision to send his eldest son to the Oratory, a grant maintained school, rather than the neighbourhood comprehensive?
"We made the decision as parents. This is the school our child would have gone to under the last Labour government and under the next Labour government. This is the one we thought was right for him."
Education, Blair reminds us, is to be the passion of New Labour's programme. But he is not yet ready to declare his party's hand on any detailed thinking on secondary education. The Labour Party, he says, is embarking, as promised, on a consultation withthe grant maintained schools. "But we have said the two key principles are that there must be equitable funding between schools whether they're grant maintained or not. And secondly, whereas the Government believes the public interest should be represented centrally, we believe it should be represented locally."
Schools, says Blair, became grant maintained for two reasons, first because there was a "funding incentive to do so", and second because they wanted greater autonomy. The second aspiration Labour understands, and so the party will discuss with the schools "what is the right structure given those two principles".
He argues that the Government has opted for the "fundamentally wrong" option of a period of consolidation in education. His preferred focus, however, is standards. He does not sound very interested in the controversy over grant maintained schools and he dismisses the idea that Labour should worry itself over the the future of Britain's public schools.
"The real problem is that you do have excellent schools in the state education system. You've also got some very bad ones and ones that are underperforming. And a lot of those are underperforming in precisely the areas where it is most important economically and socially that they do perform well." So, far from the quiet life, what is needed is change to ensure those schools raise their standards. At issue is teacher performance, discipline in schools and "the energy and vitality of the system of inspection to make sure those schools are up to standard".
The Government's own "war" with the teachers was counterproductive. "But it doesn't follow from that that we should simply sit back and say the teaching in our schools is fine, because plainly in a lot of schools it isn't."
He says he is still open-minded about the issue of entry criteria for schools, not even ruling out the use of vouchers, which some on the left believe could be weighted in such a way as to attack educational underprivilege. In his view, however, no one has yet come up with a feasible scheme in which vouchers can be used "without avoiding one set of educational problems and simply buying into another". But he is clear that it would be a "big mistake" to go back to the 11-plus. "In my view, the future of the education system will not be determined by questions of structure, or even by publishing the information that the Government has published and which we do say should be made available to parents. It will be determined by the degree of action dedicat ed to the question of standards."
In discussing Europe, Blair shows a less sure touch, although on the headline issue of the moment - whether to commit his party to a referendum on the outcome of the 1996 intergovernmental conference, he is playing a visibly tactical game. But he scorns as "pathetic" the idea that Labour should involve itself in a contest with the Government over who suggested the proposal first, and lambasts John Major for backing a referendum just to unite his party. …