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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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.