Diary

21st June 1996 at 01:00
More details are emerging of the colourful world of education politics during the slicked-back days of Kenneth Baker and the creation of the national curriculum, memories which even now appear to evoke a shudder.

Previously unpublished sections of his recent interview with Professor Michael Barber have emerged, in which he confides: "Any country which decides to write a national curriculum . . . ought to look carefully at what we went through, because I learned a lot about the individual subjects and I realised each one was a battlefield. I thought maths must have been devoid of passion. Not at all! Should we use calculators or shouldn't we? Should children learn tables by heart? Should you learn calculus before the age of 16? and so on and so on. Doctrinal!" At least he expected to get some help from Margaret Thatcher. "She wanted it to be pretty rigorous, old-fashioned stuff, which I have great sympathy with, actually. I am a great believer in learning things by heart and we appointed one of her mates, Siggy Prais, to the maths committee, but he wouldn't fight his corner. When they didn't all agree with him, he went off in a huff."

At this point, recalled Mr Baker, he brought in National Curriculum Council supremo Duncan Graham - a man so determined to outwit the civil servants that he even organised a meeting in a field in North Wales - to knock a few heads together. "He was an awkward sod. But you needed an awkward sod, actually. "

Still, teachers still recovering from the rigours of the curriculum and the Patten Years might like to know things could have been worse. A lot worse. Mr Baker recalls cheerfully: "I think it was quite clear that Ken Clarke when he was there - it was a very short time - was gearing up to a major conflict with the teachers again, because he likes a scrap. And he was moving to that, I think, with some joy."

David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, was highly amused by the admission of energetic sports minister Iain Sproat that the Government's policy of encouraging local authorities to flog off surplus land had "the unforeseen consequence" that too many acres of school playing fields were sold. Now Mr T wonders whether he should have foreseen that some prints he has just sold to an American would be taken away to the US and not left with him.

In Carborundum's day, the notice afforded by MPs to student politics rarely ventured beyond the sending of a dry-cleaning bill, hurled eggs and tomatoes having been removed thus. Not any more. A "fascinating" early-day motion appeared in the House of Commons order paper last week, signed by such luminaries as Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and Dennis "Beast of Bolsover" Skinner and accusing the current president of the National Union of Students of being "intolerant and dictatorial".

The motion accuses Jim Murphy of having unconstitutionally suspended his vice president for taking part in an open debate on the issues raised by the Campaign For Free Education, a student organisation calling plaintively for grant and benefits levels to be returned to the equivalent of 1979.

It also accuses Murphy and NUS president-elect, Douglas Trainer, of threatening to suspend a national executive member if she attends the Scottish launch of the outfit.

Airily, it continues that this House "reminds Mr Murphy and Mr Trainer that freedom of speech is a right in the United Kingdom, that they have no power to overturn the results of elections that went against their preferred candidates and that, whilst these methods are a common practice in dictatorships around the world, they are not acceptable behaviour from someone such as Mr Murphy who is putting himself forwards as suitable for election for the House of Commons. " No? OK then.

Seeking enlightenment, the Diary contacted the horse's mouth - the NUS, in this case - and got a comment, faxed, from Mr Trainer. Student politics really ain't what they used to be. Anyway, after professing that the NUS Two are "surprised and saddened" because none of the MPs involved asked them for the facts before making "an unwarranted personal attack" they rejected the "inaccurate contents" of their motion.

In classic studentese, it concluded: "Likening the use of established NUS procedures to the activities of dictatorships is frankly detached from reality. NUS is neither a state nor a political party but a democratically-controlled voluntary organisation, campaigning for the welfare of students." And that's yer lot, apart from the snippet of information that Mr Murphy is apparently Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate in Eastwood, one of the very few Conservative constituencies in Scotland.

Fascinating scenes in the Improving Schools seminar which was held last week in the leafy glades of Sanctuary Buildings, headquarters of the Department for Education and Employment.

An unlikely romance developed between Dave Wilcox, new (Labour) vice-chair of the Association of County Councils education committee and schools minister Robin Squire, The Man Tipped For The Chop (for being reasonable, a heinous crime to Conservative Central Office).

Mr Wilcox, fed up with the general tenor of debate, told Mr S: "This isn't a political point because you suffer from the same problem I suffer from. We're both trying to do sensible things. Maybe we can meet after the meeting?" Mr Squire, wearing an unusually inscrutable expression, sighed: "I think we have got the basis for a rapprochement here."

Could be the start of a beautiful friendship? Or then again maybe not, come reshuffle time.

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