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 We need an education system that prepares young people for the future, not a narrow and out of date exam system that risks undermining our economic strength in innovation and creativity."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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder