Tales of Baker daze and Sherpa Chris

14th June 1996 at 01:00
So Mrs Thatcher got her ideas on education from her hairdresser, or possibly from her cleaner, according to the late great Kenneth Baker in an interview with Michael Barber reported in The TES a couple of weeks ago.

Apparently she would go into Cabinet meetings clutching what Baker called "some rather tatty bit of paper which she had been sent by somebody, goodness knows who ... Sometimes this rogue briefing was spot on, other times it was completely mad". I was left wondering, given the lunacy of those years, how Baker knew which was which.

It could explain a lot. Since the right-wing ideologues were supposed to be her main inspiration, did they double up as her hairdresser? After all, she usually had a rather bulbous lump of topiary on top of her head, so perhaps it was the handiwork of someone more at home with the thoughts of Adam Smith than with a pair of shears.

My mum used to be a cleaner, but she never had the chance to design the national curriculum. Mrs Thatcher's cleaner lived in Lambeth and, according to Baker, "was worried that her children were going to be educated by a lot of Trots". I wonder if, as she sprinkled the Vim on Mrs Thatcher's immaculate MFI sink unit, she was inspired to create those exciting SATs for seven-year-olds on floating and sinking, that had the nation's infant schools slopping knee-deep in water and disgustingly sodden pineapples.

Or did Monsieur Pierre, as he chiselled the Great One's locks, dream up all those Attainment Targets? "Tell you what." Snip, snip. "How about 17 ATs for science and 14 for maths. A little more off the top?" Snip, snip. "How's that for length? Or what about this one, this'll have you in stitches. Why not make teachers tick thousands of little boxes, so the Trots have no time to teach all that Marxist-Leninist theory? String 'em all up, I say. A bit more mousse, madam?"

Actually, I must say I found it hard to read Baker's unique version of 1980s history without recourse to the airline sick bag I always have to hand on these occasions. There it was again, the story of the man who bravely battled on from triumph to triumph, never a false step. Any errors were down to someone else, like the teaching profession. So when Michael Barber described him as "a minister of rare political talent" I have to admit that these were not words that leapt immediately into my mind. "Complete" and "Wally" got there first.

These profiles and images of public figures are always fascinating. In the many pen portraits of chief inspector Chris Woodhead there is always the mention of his interest in mountaineering. Fearless Wooders intimates that he likes a scrap and will take on anybody or anything, regardless of danger - Everest, the Matterhorn, Mrs Fothergill who teaches Year 2.

There he was again on Panorama last week telling teachers to spend 60 per cent of their maths lessons teaching the whole class. I didn't think he went far enough. What about the remaining 40 per cent? My own suggestion would be 39 per cent for copying off the blackboard and 1 per cent for scratching your bum.

This latest attack on trendy teachers was sparked off because Wooders was impressed by children in other countries getting better test scores than our pupils. As a believer in the validity of exam results, he would presumably have no time for the woolly 1980s progressive who criticised traditional English teachers, called examinations "pernicious" and wrote: "An even more intransigent problem is that of measuring the progress of any individual child. For what criteria does the orthodoxy offer the classroom teacher to help him evaluate this progress?"

But hold on a minute. The author of this coruscating attack on examinations and traditional English teachers was none other than Sherpa Woodhead himself. Back in the 1980s, shortly before the Baker era, good old Chris got on his mountaineering gear and had a real go at English "traddies" in a journal article I found. Just listen to this: "It is not really surprising that in practice the majority of them (English teachers) abandon the theory which they encountered in training or on in-service courses in favour of a more mundane concentration on the extent to which children can spot the simile or remember the story line. Intellectually mundane such practices may be, but they do at least hold the chance of professional satisfaction: a teacher can feel he has taught something.

"It is factors like these and not the shadow of public examinations, pernicious as the influence of examinations certainly is, that largely inhibit English teachers from developing English lessons in a way which utilises theory. As I have said, teachers who are conscious of this failure and are prepared to admit it frequently explain it by arguing that their teaching is distorted from its true purposes by the demands of the examination syllabuses. But ultimately that ludicrous insistence which characterises so many literature examinations, an insistence on memorised fact and on techniques of practical criticism wholly inappropriate to the intelligence and maturity of most candidates, is a symptom rather than a cause."

I would quote more, but we traditionalists find it far too progressive, so read for yourself "Dream and Waking: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Literature" in the journal Use of English, volume 33.2, pages 3 to l5.

So the vital question remains: what would the fearless Sherpa say if Donald Duck became Prime Minister tomorrow? To which the answer is: "Quack quack". More or less what he says now, and said then, come to think of it.

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