'I like changing education. I can't stop'

6th November 2009 at 00:00
As Ken Baker, he was arguably the most influential education secretary of the Thatcher era. Now, with his party perhaps on the cusp of power, the architect of the 'great' 1998 reform act tells Richard Vaughan that he is relishing his new battle - to establish technical schools

Although it has been more than 20 years since he was education secretary, Lord Kenneth Baker says he is still trying to revolutionise education. The Tory peer arrives for his interview clutching his latest book, George Washington's War In Caricature And Print, a collection of historical notes and cartoons from the late 18th century. Apparently Lord Baker's love of caricature stems from his depiction as a slug in the iconic 1980s TV series Spitting Image.

However, it was, in part, his championing of history that led him to change the face of English education completely.

In his 1988 Education Reform Act - dubbed the "Great Education Reform Bill" by the Tories, and later known as "Gerbil" - Lord Baker introduced a host of new measures that are still in place today. And, just as they did back in 1988, they are still polarising the education establishment.

The national curriculum, key stages, Sats and the precursors to the ever-controversial academies were all brought in with one wave of a regal hand in the Queen's Speech.

But Lord Baker is by no means finished with his work in education. As The TES revealed in March, the 75-year-old peer is campaigning to set up a new breed of academies called university technical colleges (UTCs). If he gets his way, he believes that he could, once again, bring profound change to the English education system.

"I think this is quite a revolutionary change, actually," he says surveying the education landscape before him. It is a job he puts on a par with "Gerbil" back in 1988. "I think so, yes. I can't stop," he continues, chuckling to himself. "I like changing education!"

The idea behind UTCs is to make it easier to deliver vocational diplomas to pupils. The schools are intended to engage with young people, particularly boys, who are beginning to lose interest in more traditional qualifications.

Lord Baker recalls a conversation with the late Lord Dearing, author of the seminal 1997 report on higher education, in which they decided that the one thing missing from English education was technical schools.

"We had them in 1945 - grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns - but technical schools were the first to go," he says. "It was seen as dirty jobs and greasy rags stuff. A second-class education and everybody wanted to be in the school on the hill.

"It was a huge mistake and one that Germany didn't make. Germany in 1945 bought the English education system - they have grammar schools, secondary modern and technical schools, and the technical schools are more popular than the grammar schools.

"This is one of the reasons why Germany is such a great engineering and technological country. Their technical schools churn out at one level a technician and the other level a university graduate engineer."

In order to make the programme work here, pupils would have to change schools at 14, an age when youngsters are in a better position to make more informed decisions about their futures, according to Lord Baker.

"These are 14 to 18-year-olds, and that's revolutionary," he says. "If they want to do it we are offering them huge new career paths of really top-class vocational education, which can be taken up to university degree level if that's what they want to do."

The move was originally backed by Lord Adonis when he was at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. He believed the UTCs could be delivered under the Government's academy programme.

With Lord Adonis's backing, Lords Baker and Dearing turned to Birmingham, where Aston University threw its weight behind the programme. Jim Knight, then schools minister, approved the project and a new 600-800 student technical college will be completed by 2012. For Lord Baker, this is lamentably slow progress.

"Why it takes three years to build a school I have no idea," he says. "We won a world war in four-and-a-half years but can only build a school in three."

Despite grumblings from the unions, UTCs have emerged as an attractive alternative for local authorities that recognise the challenges of keeping youngsters interested in education, and a second college is being built in Walsall.

The colleges will focus on two Diplomas, one in engineering and construction trades and the other in engineering and IT. All students will have hands-on experience from day one. The problem with the current Diplomas, Lord Baker has argued, is that youngsters end up studying bricks rather than building with them.

"The pupils going in to Walsall at 14 will be half apprentices and half students," he says. "If they are doing a building Diploma, all of them will be holding a trowel on their first day at college.

"The difficulty with Diplomas is that a student has to spend three days a week in his comprehensive studying English, maths, science and IT. Then he has to catch a bus on the fourth day to take him to a training centre, and on the fifth day possibly to another training centre for work experience.

"It's no way for someone to study. The Government has got to recognise this."

Embracing technical skills is paramount for the future, Lord Baker says. If the country is to become self-sufficient once again, the stigma that surrounds vocational courses must be replaced with pride.

"We are trying to give really top-class vocational qualifications; these are not second-class, lower-grade institutions. The important thing about the universities backing them is that it lifts the status of the college.

"If we're going to have nuclear power stations and high-speed rail we need a mass of technicians right up to engineers - we need to be proud of it once more."

While the current Labour Government has backed the plan, the Conservatives intend to expand it so that, ultimately, all major cities in the country will boast a UTC.

Lord Baker would like to see Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, focus on UTCs because they will produce "quicker results" than the Tories' academy programme, which is based on the model of Swedish free schools and US charter schools. But Lord Baker acknowledges the strengths of the academy programme.

"I think in principle it's a good idea," he says. "I suspect it would be better at the primary level than the secondary level because I do know how difficult is to create a school.

"This is what I have been doing for the last two years - it's very, very difficult. You have to find the site, get planning permission and you've got to have a champion who is willing to fight the natural inertia that exists in the system. It requires a big effort, but it has worked in Sweden and we'll have to see if it works over here."

And Lord Baker knows only too well how big a task Mr Gove faces should the Conservatives win the general election.

"Education can't be exempt from budget cuts," he says. "It will be very tough for the next four years. You have to get the best out of what you have got. Michael Gove will have to fight very, very hard to preserve his spend. Very hard.

"I think that David Cameron and George Osborne will protect it as well as they can. But they have to cut so much. It's astronomical what they have to do to turn the country around."

But Lord Baker says he has every confidence in education under Mr Gove, who he describes as "a gifted man". He says that the preparatory work being done by the shadow education team is a far cry from life under Margaret Thatcher.

"When Margaret appointed me in 1986, I expected to be given a list of things to do," he says. "She just said go away and think about it for two months and then come back and tell me what you want to do."

What he came back with is still as pertinent today as it was 20 years ago. At the time, Lord Baker was also fighting nationwide industrial action by the teaching union NUT, resignations over the principle of whether trigonometry should be taught pre-14. In addition, battles were fought over whether a longer teaching day should be introduced.

Although Mr Gove may not face adversity on such a scale should he gain office next year - at least, not at first - there is little doubt that Lord Baker would happily trade places and do it all again.


1934: Born Newport, Wales 1948 Attended St Paul's School, London

1958: Graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford

1968: Elected MP for Acton, London

1970: Elected MP for St Marylebone, London

1983: Elected MP for Mole Valley, Surrey

1985: Environment Secretary

1986; Education Secretary

1989: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and chairman of the Conservative Party

1990: Home Secretary

1992: Left government

1997: Life peer as Baron Baker of Dorking.

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