“The Bakers rose through education” – Reflections on “Reflections”

The Bakers rose through education. They thought education is the most important thing in life” – Kenneth Baker

“Baker Days” were/are the days set aside for teachers’ in-service professional training. This week, thanks to BBC Radio 4, we learned something about Kenneth Baker himself.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07pgvjg (Radio 4 – “Reflections”)

Ken Baker

What we already knew is that Baron Baker of Dorking cares a great deal about education, and back in the 80s he was responsible for the introduction of the National Curriculum in England and Wales. He was also responsible for the introduction of Standard Attainment Tests (SATs), which paved the way for league tables and the culture of target setting, the ‘naming and shaming’ of schools and local authorities, and pretty much everything else that contributed and still contributes to the narrowing of the curriculum and a “relentless focus” on “driving up standards”.

When Tony Blair spoke about “education, education, education” being his top priority he was in fact talking about “Attainment, Attainment, Attainment” – three words which featured on the final slide of a Powerpoint presentation inflicted on many an unfortunate headteacher in certain local authorities. It was Kenneth Baker who steered education in England down this road, and people like Blair and David Blunkett who stood on the accelerator.

The effects of Baker’s education Act were traumatic for so many schools that were working hard to find a proper balance in their curriculum in order that children not only thrived on literacy and numeracy but also developed independent study skills, a love of learning for its own sake, communication skills, the capacity for creativity and imagination, and what many of us now think of as life skills: personal, social, emotional and spiritual skills and attitudes – often referred to as PSHE and SMSC education.

So what does Baron Baker now say about education?

“I wanted more technical schools. I wanted to get computers into schools. I wanted local management of schools.”


Q: “What is it about our country that is resistant to this concept of ‘technical’ education? It’s absolutely crucial to this country’s industrial and economic future.”

A: “Snobbery is the answer. Everybody wanted to go to the School on the Hill – the grammar school – with the trees and the flags flying and all the rest of it. And very extraordinarily the Labour party never supported technical education. It’s still desperately needed.”

Q: “Michael Gove was very resistant to technical education. Why was that?”

A: “He didn’t really understand technical education. And he succumbed to the teachings of an American educational philosopher called Hirsch who said the way you can improve the lot of the working classes and poor people is just to concentrate on academic subjects. That’s all you have to do. There’s no evidence that this works. Between 40 and 50 percent of the young people in our country don’t want to do just academic subjects.

The actual curriculum that is now being imposed upon our education system consists of nine to eight subjects – it’s gone back to that at the moment – and it’s completely wrong. They are word for word the subjects that were announced in 1904 by Dr Morant. It didn’t work. I have always believed there should be a mixture of technical and academic. And I think it’s even more important today.

We’re now on the edge of a digital revolution that will change absolutely everything. It’s going to change employment and it’s going to change education. You’ve got to give kids today, when they leave school at 16 (?), a series of skills. For example, they should have worked in teams, which they don’t do in schools at all. They should deal with problem solving, which they don’t really do in schools at all. They should be making projects so that they can then present them to others and talk. They should talk to lots of adults other than their parents and their teachers – like business people who come into schools.

They need these skills because in the future there’s going to be much more self-employment and part-time work. 45 technical colleges will be opened in September of this year, dealing with 15,000 students. Their age range will be 14 to 19. We’re the only country left in the world with a transfer age of 11. It is ridiculous. It should be 13 or 14, like most countries.”

What to make of all this? In our view he’s right about Gove and Hirsch, and their malevolent influence on our system of education. He’s also right about the need for a broad-based education through to the age of 14, at which point students should engage with a very broad based 14 – 19 baccalaureate within which they should be offered vocational as well as academic learning, including life skills, problem-solving and learning through practical and creative projects and the arts. This is not an original point of view – as Ken Baker says it’s what already happens in the most educationally successful school systems.

What’s lacking here is any acknowledgement by Ken Baker that the majority of our Primary schools (with the encouragement and support of HMI) were already trying to achieve these aims prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum – broad based learning, ‘technical’ learning (Design & Technology) and creative learning, an emphasis on teamworking and group work, learning through project work, contact with other adults (especially on class visits), cross-curricular learning, etc. There were many inadequate and quite a few failing schools, but the best of our schools were demonstrating that it’s possible as well as highly desirable to offer a relevant, enjoyable, comprehensive and indeed rigorous education of the type Ken Baker describes. A minimalist National Curriculum that placed an emphasis on the type of learning he now says is desirable would have been fine. The maximalist NC that Ken Baker introduced was not fine, which was universally acknowledged when it was later slimmed down, and after that slimmed down some more.

In far too many (if not most) schools the appearance in 1988 of a set of 8 large folders setting out exactly what should be taught in schools changed everything. It was almost as if Ken Baker had set out to turn the clock back to 1904. In schools across the country teachers took one look at the highly detailed programmes of study and immediately decided they had to go back to compartmentalised and dis-integrated learning based almost entirely on the eight subjects, with a rigidly timetabled approach to each subject. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but it happened, and Mr Baker could have anticipated it happening. He certainly did nothing to discourage a return to formal, timetabled, academic study, within which there appeared to be no room for the sorts of learning he now advocates. A better informed and more challenging BBC interviewer would have known this and would have asked Lord Baker about those retrograde developments.

As for the future – should we now anticipate the development an education system in England based on a combination of grammar schools and ‘technical’ schools and colleges, instead of a truly comprehensive system that finally offers a comprehensive and truly relevant education to students of all needs, abilities, backgrounds, aptitudes, preferences and talents? If parents and teachers prefer the latter, then there could be a very big battle ahead of us.

See also:

The Water Buffalo and Sewing Curriculum


“Cultural Literacy”, “Key Facts” and Hard Times


Simon Jenkins on Education in England – A Devastating Critique


Key Concepts for the Learning Revolution


Explaining the Finnish Miracle – In Teachers We Trust


Singapore – “Teach Less, Learn More!”


A Creative Workforce and the Secret of Success


Enlightenment! Thanks To The CBI.


Rethinking Learning and Teaching.


A Personal View of the Festival of Education, Wellington College
– from around halfway in this blog post – Ken Baker agrees with John Cridland of the CBI


The CBI report on Education: “First Steps: A New Approach for our Schools


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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