Gove's exam reforms are a "throwback" to the 1950s, says former Tory education secretary

Kenneth Baker launches damning attack on the Education Secretary in an interview with the New Statesman.

What does Kenneth Baker, the most transformative education secretary in recent history, make of Michael Gove's revolution? I interviewed the Conservative peer at the Millbank offices of Edge, the education foundation he chairs, earlier this week and he was strikingly critical of the coalition's approach. The full piece will appear in the next issue of the NS but for Staggers readers here are some highlights.

Gove's English Baccalaureate: "a throwback" to the 1950s

Baker described Gove's English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which will replace GCSEs from 2015, as "a throwback", comparing it to the School Certificate he sat as a 16-year-old in 1951. He told me: "The EBacc is very similar to the exam I sat in 1951 when I was 16, the School Certificate. It’s exactly the same, exactly!

"I was the last year that took it, because it simply wasn’t broad enough for most children. Only seven per cent of young people went on to post-16 education, I was part of a privileged elite. And the EBacc is a throwback to that."

"I like Michael, he's a friend, but I’m in favour of doing something different, obviously," he said.

With the school leaving age rising to 17 this year and 18 from 2015, Baker questioned the need for an exam at 16. "If you go up to 18, why would have you an exam? What is the purpose? There was a purpose when I was educated because only 10 per cent went on. But now 100 per cent will go on in one way or another, so why have an exam at 16?"

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said of Baker's comments: "When even Conservatives say that Michael Gove's exams are a throwback to the 1950s, you know he's got the wrong approach. We need an education system that prepares young people for the future, not a narrow and out of date exam system that risks undermining our economic strength in innovation and creativity."

TechBacc: why won't the government support it?

In his new book, 14-18: A New Vision for Secondary Education, Baker argues that the age of transfer should be raised from 11 to 14 ("11 is too soon to change and 16 too late," he said) and that pupils should be able to choose between four types of schools: traditional academic, technical (Baker has overseen the opening of five University Technical Colleges, with 12 to follow this year and 15 the next), career-based and creative or sports.

It is an approach markedly at odds with that of Gove, who often appears entirely preoccupied with the first of these four. While Labour has adopted Baker's proposal of a Technical Baccalaureate (TechBacc), the government remains resistant.

"The government approves of a TechBacc at 18 but not at 16, which is double dutch really, because if you have a TechBacc at 18 you’ve got to have some technical subjects that your students are required to take at 16."

On Gove: he thinks "If I did it, others should do it"

Baker argued that the 317 technical schools that existed in 1946, which he is seeking to recreate in the form of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), were "closed by snobbery."

"Everyone wanted their children to go to the school on the hill, the grammar school, not the one down in the town with the shabby premises."

Is Gove guilty of a similar bias? "He had a tough education, he came through it, and did very well. And there’s always a feeling, ‘If I did it, others should do it.’"

Scrapping GCSEs: "I don't know how they're going to do it"

It was Baker who introduced GCSEs in 1986 and he said he was doubtful that Gove would meet his target of replacing the exams with the EBacc in 2015, with the first papers sat in 2017.

"It takes a long time to introduce a new exam. It took Keith Joseph three years to plan GCSEs and me nearly two years to implement them. It’s quite demanding, to say the least. I don't know how they're going to do it."

He added: "2017 is quite ambitious and I think there’s a good chance that deadline will be missed."

Baker said it was "unlikely" the EBacc would survive a change of government and noted that "there will still be GCSEs around, I don’t think they’re going to abolish GCSEs as such."

Free schools: "the jury's out" and profit-making is not the answer

The former Tory education secretary also sounded a note of scepticism about Gove's "free schools", remarking that "the jury's out" until their pupils have sat exams.

"I think that the jury’s out on free schools, quite frankly, it must be because none of them have taken any exams yet. If you start a primary school, there’s not an exam until the age of six or seven. If you start a secondary school, there’ll be no results for five years, so that to extent the jury’s out on them, we’ll have to see how they go."

Of Gove's predilection for grassroots involvement, he sardonically remarked, "Their success depends very much on the commitment of the local community. And the parents. Well, the private sector, on the whole, has got the attitude to parents correct: parents are only allowed to approach the school with a cheque book in their hands."

He dismissed those on the right who argue that the success of the schools depends on them being run for profit.

"I don’t think allowing them to be run for profit would necessarily change very much, quite frankly. I really don’t think it would."

Tuition fees: "the jump to £9,000 was just too much"

As the man who introduced student loans in 1990, sounding the death knell for fully state funded university education, one might expect Baker to favour the decision to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000-a-year, but he told me that it was "all too sudden".

"There was a case for an increase, but by doing it so quickly they’ve guaranteed that applications will fall for years to come.

"A lot of prospective students will ask, if I’m going to have a debt of £30,000 at the end of a three-year course, is it worth it? I strongly believe that students should make a contribution their education but it has to start in a very modest way, to go slowly, the jump to £9,000 was just too much, quite frankly."

The coalition promised that universities would only charge £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances" but three-quarters of universities are planning to charge £9,000 for some courses this year, with a third charging the maximum fee for all subjects.

Gove has "no interest in further education or universities"

Baker also criticised the decision not to return control of university policy to the Department of Education from the Department for Business. "Michael [Gove]'s got no interest in further education or universities," he said.

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.