On the roof with Kenneth Baker
Last week I found myself on the roof of a building site in north west London with Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, former Conservative Education secretary under Margaret Thatcher. The occasion as the topping-out ceremony of a University Technical College (or UTC) being set up by Brunel University in collaboration with several large aerospace engineering companies under the aegis of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust. UTCs are a new-ish form of state secondary school promoted by Lord Baker through his Trust with the aim of promoting high-quality vocational education alongside academic education. Indeed, they seek the integration of the two but against a background of mistrust and snobbery about vocational education that has bedevilled England for a long time and leads to poor comparisons with the situation in European countries such as Germany (although this is starting to change for the worse in Germany, unfortunately).
In the buffet that followed the rain-sodden, rooftop ceremony, I was introduced to Kenneth Baker who enthusiastically urged me to get Brunel to offer interesting projects to the UTC to engage the students in problem-solving and connect their schoolwork to academic and industrial activities. I, being something of an education nerd, sweatily shook his hand and told him that his Great Education Reform Act of 1988 had shaped my entire professional career as a teacher and that it was one of the two most significant pieces of education policy of the twentieth century, accomplishing many changes in terms of both curriculum and school management structures. He smiled and held my elbow, saying ‘Ah, you have benefited from all of my changes, then.’ To which my mind immediately responded ‘Er, I didn’t mean it quite like that’, before I noticed a knowing twinkle in his eye. Anyone who was so ruthlessly caricatured by Spitting Image in the 1980s knows how to see the multiple meanings in a statement and to respond appropriately.
It struck me afterwards that Baker is probably unique in sustaining his interest and considerable commitment to education among recent Education Secretaries. He was only in office as Secretary of State for Education for three years – for just one year after the 1988 Act – but unlike so many of those that have followed him with relatively short terms in that role, he has been active in practical work and policy thinking throughout the twenty five years since he left office. His perspective on vocational education is an interesting one and not one that would consign children perceived as ‘less intelligent’ or from working class backgrounds to ‘skills training’. His argument has been that vocational education is equivalent to academic education and must be integrated with it. As a society, we should regard engineering as both a creative and technical, design-based profession and one that is necessary for the development of our culture as well as our national infrastructure.
On the way back to work in the rain, I asked someone who knew him what Lord Baker thought of the current Secretary of State, Michael Gove, adding that I thought he was probably too polite to say. ‘Quite right’, came the reply, ‘although I think there have been one or two robust exchanges.’ There are different kinds of Tory, if we need reminding.