10 years on Ken's still very pleased with himself

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore meets the architect of the Education Reform Act of 1988 and asks what does he think of it so far?

"It's rather nice no longer being an ogre," says Kenneth Baker, beaming as he shows me out.

Ten years ago, when his Education Reform Act hit the statute book, with its promise of opted-out schools, a national curriculum and national tests, he certainly was an ogre to many in the educational world. But he was always a very benign kind of ogre. The smile rarely left his face, then as now. Then as now, his self-confidence and belief that he was doing right were unshakeable.

Lord Baker of Dorking, as he now is, arrives a little late for our meeting because he has been advising a friend on her daughter's GCSE options. Once you have been involved with education, people never really let you escape. But his office these days is a far cry from the plate-glass Poulson hothouse above Waterloo Station that he used to inhabit as Education Secretary. It is a handsome little black-painted 18th-century house off Park Lane, tucked in behind the Dorchester. Just a perch, he says, but a nice perch if he can keep it. A Scarfe cartoon of Margaret Thatcher giving him a vicious handbagging takes pride of place on the wall.

Now 63, Lord Baker spends his time working on the establishment of a Museum of British History (negotiations are afoot to build on the wasteland behind King's Cross but he wants a bit of the Dome too), attending the House of Lords (three recent speeches on higher education) and "in business", mainly in his pet area of telecommunications and high technology. But he keeps a fairly close eye on education where, he has claimed, he introduced "the biggest single measure of social reform which was undertaken in the Thatcher years".

How is it wearing? "Very well", he says. "The test is whether education standards have improved and they undoubtedly have been improved." He cites the improvement in reading and numeracy scores between 1996 and 1997 and improvements in GCSE and staying-on rates too. He's not "bragging", he stresses, and it doesn't do to underestimate the "very difficult, very demanding" time teachers had of it but, yes, it's all "very very encouraging".

And how is the new Labour Government doing on education? Lord Baker seems to think Labour is carrying on his work pretty well.

"David Blunkett has in effect accepted the changes of 10 years ago," he remarks. He wouldn't want to remind anybody of how opposed Labour had been to all his changes, and how they'd promised to repeal it all, but he's very glad they haven't.

"The core curriculum, tests, league tables, grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges - they're all there and being built upon," he says. And some of David Blunkett's speeches sound like "some of my old scripts". Indeed, some go further than he could have done. "If I'd been quite so explicit as he was in that speech about parents, I'd have been described as Neanderthal, " he remarks.

But what about the suspension of the national curriculum in primary schools, announced last week? "It's a mistake," he says simply. "David Blunkett should have resisted all those arguments coming from what's left of the educational establishment in favour of 'flexibility'."

It's quite right to concentrate on literacy and numeracy, says Baker, but he points out that there have been big improvements in both in the past 10 years. And he warns against the belief that a return to the 3Rs means a return to a Golden Age when everything was wonderful. If it was so wonderful, he says, why were employers complaining to him throughout the 1980s that the literacy and numeracy of their 16-year-old recruits was disgraceful?

He thinks the change will mean the creation of a two-tier primary system: the high-achieving schools will keep to the national curriculum and the low achievers will go back to the 3Rs, and children leaving the low-achiever schools will be lower down the educational ladder.

"If the Government thinks the way to improve literacy and numeracy is to spend more time on them, then there should be more teaching time in primary schools, " says Lord Baker. And one way to achieve that would be to use Lottery money to pay for homework clubs devoted to literacy and numeracy and pay teachers extra to teach in them. But he thinks it's a question of using better methods, not more time, and salutes the "sensible" move back to phonics.

Lord Baker concedes that this Government has said far more about methods of teaching literacy and numeracy than the Tories ever did - but points out that this is only possible because he first "trampled in the vineyard" of the curriculum 10 years ago. (Well, it makes a change from the secret garden. ) On the curriculum, Kenneth Baker remains an unreconstructed "broad-and-balanced" man. He supports Sir Ron Dearing's idea of a half-GCSE. He laments the decision by "one of my successors" (Kenneth Clarke) to allow children to drop geography and his beloved history at the age of 14 - the only country in Europe apart from Albania to let children drop history so early, he wails. In the sixth form, however, he is still staunchly pro-A-level.

What about grant-maintained schools, where the Government is surely proposing to trample about a bit? Lord Baker has to say that Labour's plan to turn them into foundation schools is "regrettable". "I would leave them alone because they're very successful," he says - the outer manifestation of all that energy that he sought to release into the system by letting schools run themselves. "I think you should keep the sticky fingers of the LEA off them."

The role of local education authorities is "pretty residual now", he says, but he remains opposed to abolishing them. "Provision for children with special educational needs and all the problems of exclusion certainly fall absolutely in the lap of a local authority; one school can't cope with them alone. " He would be against trying to reinvent a great role for them, however.

Where schools are failing, he supports the idea of sending task forces in or setting up education action zones. "The ideas of higher salaries and a bigger commitment from the local community and business are very good - I applaud all that," he says.

Kenneth Baker does not accept that his introduction of GM schools, city technology colleges and open enrolment may have sent some less popular schools into a downward spiral. "I don't subscribe to the argument that letting some birds fly free inevitably means some will fall to the ground," he says. "One or two may fall to the ground but many more struggle up to better things. To the extent they can't do that, they do need some outside help."

Lord Baker has expressed two main regrets about the reforms he introduced 10 years ago. The first is the "too elaborate" testing system he initially introduced ("I tried to make it simpler but... at that stage the expert educationists took over"). The second is that he did not take the opportunity to make the school day longer ("We have one of the lowest levels of teaching hours of any developed country"). He would make that acceptable to teachers now, he says, by providing more administrative support in schools and thus relieving teachers of some of their non-teaching burden.

Any more regrets? "I would have liked to have brought in student fees for higher education," he says, "but it was just not acceptable - it was so revolutionary to have loans." He thinks universities and colleges should become self-financing and that Labour is now creating a framework that would make it possible - but not if fees are means-tested.

So not only is Labour mostly carrying on his good work, it is even saying and doing some things he would have liked to do himself but couldn't because the time was not ripe. But, as Kenneth Baker would be the first to say, he did more than any other recent Education Secretary to ripen it.

A slimmer curriculum, page 12

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