Sketch - Regrets? They couldn't even manage a few

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Richard Vaughan enjoys seeing four former education secretaries united by satisfaction in their achievements

Westminster witnessed a rare gathering of education secretaries from the past 20 years at this week's hearing of the schools select committee.

But anyone who arrived at Portcullis House on Monday expecting a show of regret over missed opportunities during the reigns of Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and Charles Clarke would have left disappointed.

As the quartet gave the panel of MPs their reasons for doing what they did over the past two decades, the lyrics of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" could almost be heard: "Regrets, I have a fewBut then again, too few to mention".

The committee had summoned the two peers and two MPs to answer questions on what have become the foundations of today's education system - the national curriculum, national assessment and accountability through Ofsted.

The convivial meeting barely threw up a single disagreement among the four. The three new Laborites agreed with Thatcher's education secretary Lord Baker and the changes he put in place with the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Schools needed a framework, the Conservative peer told the committee, in the shape of the national curriculum. England, he added, had been the only country in the world with just one national assessment, the GCSE.

There was agreement, too, for Mr Blunkett's focus on quality leadership and teaching during his tenure, as well as his efforts to raise standards, particularly in numeracy and literacy. "Nothing else could come first," he said.

At one stage former head and Chesterfield MP Paul Holmes let out a squeak when all four agreed that teaching to the test wasn't a problem.

But the greatest acquiescence came in the call for a major shake-up in the education system that delivers greater focus on the 14-19 agenda.

Baroness Morris went so far as to call for GCSEs to be taken at the age of 14 so that they fit with the raising of the school leaving age.

"At the moment, we are wanting (pupils) to make a key decision at 14 and a key decision at 16 and what we find ourselves doing is putting into play all sorts of partnerships and relationships to make that cohesive," she said.

"But the one thing we have to ask ourselves is what is stopping it being cohesive? I think it is GCSEs at 16, so I would abolish them."

Charles Clarke, it turned out, had half a regret - that he did not see through the Tomlinson report that would have paved the way for the more cohesive 14-19 curriculum that each of the four believe should be given priority.

But Mr Clarke had become home secretary before a decision was made on the ill-fated report. So there was nothing he could have done about that.

The one enduring regret was voiced by Mr Blunkett, who said: "The only problem is none of the four of us will have the chance to do it again."

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