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Chris McGovern: The educational rot set in under Ken Baker


Lord Kenneth Baker has become the ‘éminence grise’ when school policy is debated in England. Remarkably, the one time education secretary to Margaret Thatcher still casts a spell over ministers. In my experience, they are inclined to speak of him in hushed and reverential terms.

The Baker spell extends to media commentary. His latest thoughts have appeared in The Daily Telegraph. Sensibly, he argues the case for expanding technical and vocational education in our schools. As he reminds us, it was he who launched the City Technology initiative back in the 1980s even if, after 10 years, only 16 were ever set up. Independent of local authority control, these schools pointed the way towards Tony Blair’s academy programme; subsequently, seized upon with such enthusiasm by Conservative ministers.

In office, though, Baker did remarkably little for most pupils in terms of promoting vocational education. The notion that he was some sort of visionary in this area is wide of the mark. Of course, he did have a vision but it was not one of which that he cares to remind us. We see its consequences in the abysmal under-performance of our schools today.

It was Baker who presided over the introduction of the dumbed-down GCSE exam to replace the GCE O-Level and CSE exams. Sky-high grade inflation followed. We are promised that a new GCSE Mark 2 will put things right but massive and, possibly, irreversible damage has already been caused to millions of young people.

On the 18th August 1988, following the publication of the first set of GCSE results, Baker told The Daily Telegraph: “GCSE is a better exam than those it replaces… All candidates, including the most able, will be able to show what they know, understand and can do. The GCE boards within the examining groups have been specifically charged with ensuring that GCSE grades A-C require at least the standards achieved for O-Level pass grades A-C.”

In a subsequent article on 26th August 1988, The Telegraph reported that Baker had described as “cynics” those who suggested that the overall 2 per cent increase in the GCSE pass rate at grades A-C  “was simply because the new exam was a little easier.” Grades continued to improve every year for the next 23 years reaching a 69.8 per cent A* to C ‘pass rate’ by 2011.

Baker followed up the exam revolution by introducing the National Curriculum. It should have been the other way around, of course. The Curriculum was based on a largely bogus structure of 10 levels of progress for different attainment targets in each subject. It seriously distorted and undermined good teaching but was only scrapped, recently, by Michael Gove.

Baker’s Curriculum was, also, ‘knowledge-lite’. It was over-complicated for teachers but undemanding for pupils. ‘Phonics’ was largely ditched for literacy and reading standards plummeted. The education of children was sacrificed and many a future blighted. Baker made the fatal error of allowing the promoters of education’s fads and fashions to dominate the working parties that wrote the Curriculum and, afterwards, the national tests (SATs) based on it.

As Margaret Thatcher observed: “For them [‘the educational establishment”], the national curriculum would be expected to give legitimacy and universal application to the changes that had been made over the last twenty years or so in the content and methods of teaching.” (“The Downing Street Years” p594)

Too late, she tried to halt the bandwagon. I recall, for example, being called to No 10 with a colleague to try to rescue something from the fiasco that was to be the new National Curriculum for History. We could only apply a few sticking plasters. There have, since, been a series of government missions to rescue education from the debacle left by Ken Baker. All have, to a considerable extent, failed. Michael Gove’s reforms promised better but he, too, got out of his depth and had to be sacked. He upset too many vested interests within the educational establishment.

According to the OECD our 16-24 year olds are bottom amongst developed countries for literacy and second bottom for numeracy. Our 15-year-olds trail the best performing areas of the world by up to three years. We are the only country in the developed world where grandparents out perform grandchildren. Want to know why? It is time that some media commentators asked Lord Baker to reflect on his visions as education secretary.


(Image: WorldSkills UK)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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