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Kenneth Baker’s history lesson

The former Conservative Education Secretary is sceptical about Michael Gove's free schools.

No modern education secretary casts a longer shadow than Kenneth Baker. It is to Baker that we owe the National Curriculum, Sats, school league tables, delegated budgets and university student loans. His grant-maintained schools were abolished by Labour in 1998 only to be resurrected as “trust schools”, while his city technology colleges were relaunched as academies. Now, at 78, an age when most former cabinet ministers have retired to their country houses, Baker is out to transform English education again.

“In a funny way, it doesn’t take all that long to change education,” he tells me when I meet him at his office at 4 Millbank, a short walk from the Houses of Parliament. “Take Tony Crosland – there was no legislation to introduce comprehensive schools. He issued a directive; he issued a fiat!” In his new book, 14-18: a New Vision for Secondary Education, Baker argues that pupils should begin secondary school at 14 (“Eleven is too soon to change and 16 too late”) and that they should be able to choose between four types: the usual 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 Michael Gove, who often appears entirely preoccupied with the first of these four. “I like Michael – he’s a friend – but I’m in favour of doing something different, obviously,” he says.

Baker describes the Education Secretary’s English Baccalaureate, which will replace GCSEs from 2015, as “a throwback”, comparing it to the School Certificate he sat as a 16-year-old in 1951. “I was in the last year that took it, because it simply wasn’t broad enough for most children. Only 7 per cent of young people went on to post-16 education. I was part of a privileged elite. The EBacc is a throwback to that.”

When I ask him whether he favours Labour’s proposed Technical Baccalaureate, he swiftly interjects, “That came from me!” Flashing the famous Baker grin (“I have seen the future and it smirks,” the journalist John Cole once wrote of him), he tells me that the party adopted the “TechBacc” after the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which he founded and of which the Labour peer Andrew Adonis is a trustee, put forward its own plan.

Baker argues that the 317 technical schools that existed in 1946, which he is seeking to re-create 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 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.’” While praising the Education Secretary’s support for UTCs, he is troubled by his refusal to introduce a TechBacc for 16-year-olds. “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.”      

Baker is sceptical of Gove’s free schools, remarking that the “jury’s out” until exams have been sat, and dismissive of those on the right who argue that their success depends on allowing them to make a 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.” Of the Education Secretary’s predilection for grass-roots involvement, he says sardonically, “Well, the private sector, on the whole, has got the attitude to parents correct: parents are only allowed to approach the school with a chequebook in their hands.”

One might expect Baker – as the man who introduced student loans in 1990, marking the end of fully state-funded university education – to favour the decision to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 but he tells 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.”

My time is almost up and, after briefly discussing the political woes of his former PA David Cameron (he praises Cameron as “smart” and “quite brilliant”), Baker recalls an anecdote the Prime Minister once told him about a preelection visit to see Angela Merkel. “He told her he might have to form a coalition and asked her what it was like. She replied: ‘The little party always gets smashed!’” He laughs, flashes the Baker grin again and, on that note, we part.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.