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Why are you still smiling Kenneth?

Whatever your views of the former Education Secretary, few would argue that Kenneth Baker got things done. A decade later, Michael Barber discovers that two of the key influences were his wife and a hairdresser (or cleaner) in Lambeth . . .

Did we celebrate it, commemorate it or barely recall it? May 22, 1996 was the tenth anniversary of Kenneth Baker's appointment as Secretary of State for Education. Ten years ago the Government had just received a drubbing in the local elections and Margaret Thatcher decided it was time to replace her friend and mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, with someone who would agonise less and do more.

"I think Margaret appointed me to that job to do things," says the man she chose. "The things she wanted were very inchoate in her own mind but she felt that something had to be done. I was not as intellectually distinguished as Keith, but I was a doer."

Whatever people think about Kenneth Baker, none of us doubts that he did things. While he may be best remembered for having five in-service days a year named after him, he was also the minister who, in l987, controversially abolished the Burnham Committee which negotiated teachers' pay, developed and implemented the idea of city technology colleges and gave us in the shape of the Education Reform Act, the most important legislative reform in education since the l944 Act. We owe to him the local management of schools, open enrolment, the grant maintained school concept and the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority as well as the invention of the national curriculum and testing.

Baker, who was first elected a Conservative MP 26 years ago, left the Cabinet at the last election and will stand down from Parliament after the next one. He was Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989 when he was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and party chairman. For him at any rate, the sound and fury of those years in education have begun to fade. It took only the slightest of prompts to start him talking.

"I did not invent the need for the national curriculum. It goes back to a speech by James Callaghan as Prime Minister (in 1976). He was getting a lot of complaints from parents and businesses. He expressed this view very strongly but the education establishment sandbagged him. The curriculum was considered to be a vineyard in which politicians were not allowed to trample around in their big heavyweight boots. But the debate rumbled on."

So what made him take up this forbidden challenge with such gusto?

"I knew perfectly well, because there was an election coming up, that I had to get this on the road. If I took it through endless Cabinet committees I would be sunk because the one subject on which Cabinet ministers love to digress in a very ill-formed way is reminiscing about their own school days."

In other words, what we suspected, as the package emerged, was true. Baker announced his plan for a national curriculum during a television interview with Matthew Parris late in 1986. Mrs Thatcher apparently told him soon afterwards that she admired this "calculated bounce". "Never underestimate the effectiveness of simply just announcing something," she advised him and he appears to have taken her at her word.

He insisted, however, that on this occasion it had not been a simple off-the-cuff announcement. There had been extensive discussions inside the Department of Education and Science, as it was then called. He paid particular tribute to Eric Bolton, then Chief Inspector. "I had a great deal of help from him."

Crucially, he had also made sure of the Prime Minister's support in advance. The national curriculum went on to become one of the central proposals in the manifesto for the May 1987 election. "If you look at our manifesto in 1979, I think we had about three inches on education and in 1983 we had about nine inches. In 1987 we had about 10 pages. It was a very radical set of reforms. "

"What was the intellectual coherence behind it?"

"Standards and choice. Standards first through the national curriculum and testing, and choice by activating the non-producer voice in the system, parents."

Once the election was over, Baker knew he had to deliver. He had staked his career on it and the Prime Minister had invested a great deal of her own authority in reforming schools. Education was to be the "flagship". Although the smoke from the battles over pay had barely cleared, the new Government was determined to legislate straight away. Drafting began immediately and ever since then the pace of change has been relentless. With his keen sense of history, Baker called his proposal the Great Education Reform Bill, echoing the famous Great Reform Act of 1832. Teachers preferred to call it Gerbill.

I asked him why the curriculum proposals had been sent out in July 1987 for response in September. "That was to give teachers time for reflection away from the classroom," he claimed with that Cheshire cat smile of his. But there were thousands of responses and nearly all of them were negative, so why did he go ahead regardless?

"They were opposed to the whole idea of a curriculum. But we had a mandate, it was in the manifesto, I had talked about it before the election. It was not a surprise."

As as far as Baker was concerned then, most of the teaching profession wrote itself out of the script. So who were the real influences on the national curriculum? The Prime Minister?

"Of course, Margaret had been Education Secretary. She had signed the closure of more grammar schools than any other minister. I said that to her once or twice but she sort of glared at me and changed the subject. Now on the curriculum she did have views, which as far as I could see came from her hairdresser or it may have been her cleaner who lived in Lambeth, who was worried that her children were going to be educated by a lot of Trots."

We suspected many hidden influences in that embattled era but I doubt if any of us would have traced policy back to this source. So what did the Prime Minister, advised by this hairdressercleaner recommend?

"She believed basically that all one needed in the national curriculum were English, maths and science. It was a sort of Gradgrind curriculum in my view, not a rounded one.

"She would start with two briefs at any meeting. She would get one from the Cabinet Office and another from Brian Griffiths, head of her policy unit at No 10. Then sometimes she would open her handbag and bring out some rather tatty bit of paper which she had been sent by somebody, goodness knows who. We never knew, nor did the Cabinet Office and even Brian Griffiths put his head in his hands because here was a personal briefing going straight to the Prime Minister which the system could not control. Sometimes this rogue briefing was spot on, other times it was completely mad.

"There were harangues on both sides. Margaret didn't mind ministers who argued with her, actually, as long as they argued sensibly and from knowledge. Those who argued from sentiment or from being poorly briefed, she would grind into the ground. The handbag swung and, you know, it could be quite a nasty process in front of colleagues. I kept on bobbing up and she kept on saying, 'Why are you still smiling, Kenneth?' I didn't win everything but basically I did, with support from the department and the education world, I think."

I asked whether this victory was an example of a minister putting his own personal stamp on events. If there had been a different minister would we have had a very different national curriculum? He chose not to answer the question and said instead, "I had a great deal of support from my wife Mary. She had been a secondary teacher in both the private and public sectors (including at Mayfield Comprehensive under Dame Margaret Miles, the famous South London girls' school). When I used to come back bloody and bowed from these meetings, she would say, 'No, you must stick out for a broad-based curriculum.' I think this is the first time I've mentioned that. I should have acknowledged her role in this much more."

Once the ground rules for the curriculum had been decided, largely in Baker's favour, it became much more an implementation issue. The conflicts, however, continued. The DES fought an almost continuous guerrilla warfare with the National Curriculum Council, which officials would have preferred to do without. Baker, however, had a good relationship with Duncan Graham who headed up the NCC and worried about the bureaucratic conflicts. Though he respected the advice he received from senior department officials, especially Nick Stuart, the department as a whole worried him.

"We considered the possibility of the department alone leading on the curriculum but I was sensitive to the argument that what we were doing was very centralising anyway. By creating two bodies (NCC and SEAC), we were trying to draw upon wider voices outside the department, including ordinary teachers. The civil servants didn't like that."

He was also suspicious of the way that officials in the past had maintained an easy-going relationship with union leaders and representatives of what he thought of as the education establishment. He set out consciously to break down this partnership.

"There was a lot of intellectual cohabitation between the department and the education system."

It was no way to make quick progress either, whereas in Duncan Graham, Baker saw a man who would make things happen. "He made mistakes, like all of us, but without the nitty-gritty push of Duncan Graham I doubt very much whether we would have had a national curriculum at all. He was an awkward sod but you needed an awkward sod to get it all going."

The admission that mistakes had been made caught my attention. Was there anything Baker himself regretted?

"I do not believe we got the tests right at all, they were far too complicated and I was very worried. The testing fiasco post-1992 was chaos. We should have ensured that the one thing that did work were the English tests. A lot of people were circling for a row and they used the confusion to the great disadvantage of John Patten. I felt sorry for him, he was badly let down by SEAC."

What about the detailed prescription in the national curriculum? Surely everyone now agreed that had been a mistake too? Not quite everyone, it seems.

"I would still defend that. The biggest regret I have was that I was trying to squeeze too much into the teaching day. What I should have done was to extend the teaching day by one period. I was looking at that in 1988 and I should have done it, but it would have meant re-opening the teachers' pay settlement, which I felt I just couldn't re-open."

So, in the midst and heat of battle, when teachers were feeling battered, bruised and unloved, the Education Secretary had been considering an increase in their teaching load, adding over three hours to their weekly class contact time. If he had felt like another fight, he could have compared Britain unfavourably with the longer school days that exist in parts of Europe and in the Pacific Rim. Only the fear of re-opening the teachers' pay settlement and contracted hours, imposed the previous year, prevented him from taking this step. However Baker says now he would have linked this extended day to measures which would have reduced administrative stress on teachers.

"I wish I had provided more money for the administration of schools. I learnt on one of my later visits to America that they had quite a strong administration team in each school that dealt with all the things that teachers in British schools are expected to do. If I had done that, teachers would have been released for teaching."

Regrets aside, I asked him if, over his whole career, he considered his education reforms to be his most important contribution. Of that he had no doubt. "What is encouraging now is that the changes have by and large been accepted. If you listen to the speeches of Blunkett and Blair today they are talking in the language I used: standards and choice. I think that is immensely beneficial to our country and the future education system."

Professor Michael Barber is dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education. His pamplet The Curriculum, the Minister, his Boss and her "Hairdresser", which covers this interview in more depth, will be published shortly by the Curriculum Association. Kenneth Baker is giving an open lecture at the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1 on June 3 1996 at 6pm. Details from Cathy Bird on 0171 612 6017

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