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 We need an education system that prepares young people for the future, not a narrow and out of date exam system that risks undermining our economic strength in innovation and creativity."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.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change