From Baker to Balls: the foundations of the education system - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


8 MARCH 2010

  Q1 Chair: I welcome four former Secretaries of State for Education, which is shorthand, as there have been slight changes in the name of the Department: David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Lord Baker and Baroness Morris. Thank you very much for responding to our invitation. As you know, this Committee, over the last period, has been looking at some of the major reforms and threads in education policy, and you have had the synopses of those reports on the influence of testing and assessment, and the influence of changes in the National Curriculum, followed by the school accountability report. We wrapped that round with the training of teachers. I keep referring to that as my Baker to Balls box set, which has now leaked out into the media, but never mind. The general view is that there have been some long-term trends in English education, and we thought, what better group of people to invite in than the four of you? We had to be reasonably selective, as it would be ridiculous if we had six or seven. We could have had Baroness Shephard, Ruth Kelly and others in front of us, but we thought you were a pretty fair selection. Could I start with you, Lord Baker? You know what we have been up to and—sometimes quite unfairly—everything is laid at your door in terms of the Education Reform Act 1988. In one sense, school accountability was not your big thing, was it, but you were very concerned about the national curriculum, testing and assessment? Is that a fair reflection?

Lord Baker: Yes. The last time I appeared before this Committee was when I announced that we were going to have a national curriculum in 1986—they never had me back. It was announced before your Committee, because I thought the Committee was important. Certainly the National Curriculum was probably one of the biggest changes that I introduced. It had all started with Jim Callaghan in his famous Ruskin speech. He wanted to set it in hand, but the Department was totally opposed to it. Shirley Williams, as Secretary of State, argued against it very strongly, on the grounds that it was not the job of politicians to get involved in the vineyard of education—"Take your big clumsy boots out"—and very little was done. When Keith Joseph took over, he set up some curriculum studies that were quite interesting, but did not progress very far. There was a general feeling that a national curriculum was needed. I think a national curriculum was needed for the very simple reason that if you looked at the curriculum in schools before the Bill, you found that good schools had good curriculums, mediocre schools had mediocre curriculums, and poor schools had poor curriculums. You had a great inconsistency over the country, so when children moved from Newcastle to Portsmouth, they could not slot easily into the framework of education. They were all doing different things; some schools had done dinosaurs three times and very little else. There was therefore a strong movement for a national curriculum, and that was why the National Curriculum was established. I think that now—I have strong views on this—it needs modification in certain ways, but the framework of a national curriculum is still needed in our country for those reasons. I am strongly in support of testing. Before 1988, there was only one test in British education—the GCSE at 16. That was most remarkable. It was unique in the world that there was only one test—apart from the 11-plus, but that was for a minority of schools. I would strongly support the general framework of a national curriculum, testing and league tables.

  Q2 Chair: So, in a fashion, Callaghan had made this speech and Keith Joseph was interested in the curriculum. There was a trend towards talking about a national curriculum at that time.

  Lord Baker: Yes. I think it is legitimate for the state to be deciding—because virtually every state does it—what the framework of education should be for its children. What I never attempted to do was to tell teachers how to teach it or how they should do it. I don't think that that is the job of the Secretary of State for Education, any more than the Secretary of State for Health should tell surgeons how to operate. It is up to teachers to decide how it should be done. The professionalism of teachers decides it, but it is legitimate to establish a framework.

  Q3 Chair: Did you have a battle at that time? Looking at some of the stuff, you had a kind of Adonis of his day in Stuart Sexton, didn't you? He took a rather different view of the National Curriculum from you.

  Lord Baker: There were a few noises off, but you have to cope with that. It was very interesting setting up the National Curriculum. I had to set up groups to cover the subjects. I thought that some, like maths, would be easy. I said, "They must agree about maths," but I found that armies were marching across the maths plain: those who were in favour of using calculators and those who weren't; those who were in favour of learning tables by heart; and those who were in favour of doing calculus before 16, and those against. I discovered that passion raged over maths. I knew that passion would rage over history and over English, so in English I appointed the most right-wing team I could discover, because I wanted a bit of rigour—I wanted punctuation and grammar and all that—and they came up with the wettest thing you could imagine. I had to appoint another one to firm them up. It was a real battle to get the framework of the curriculum established at certain times.

  Mr Blunkett: Who says that education is politics-free?

  Lord Baker: It is not entirely politics-free.

  Q4 Chair: Ken, I want to nail you on that a bit. There was a debate. Someone said to me that there is a Times article on Michael Gove's view of the National Curriculum that very much reflects a battle that you had with Stuart Sexton at that time.

  Lord Baker: Yes. I was also in favour of learning poetry by heart in primary school, so that was inserted into the National Curriculum, and I was very much in favour of a timeline in history. I did not want youngsters to be thrown into classes and told, "Imagine that you're living in a mediaeval village and the plague has broken out. How do you cope with it?" because you cannot do that without background knowledge of the social structure of a mediaeval village, the political structure of the country around, the relationships of the various people and their relative wealth and prosperity. You have to have information; you have to have facts.

  Q5 Chair: Can I hold you there for a moment, Ken, and turn to David? David, when you came in, in 1997, was the curriculum a big issue for you?

  Mr Blunkett: There had been a substantial development of the curriculum by that time. The arguments were already—13 years ago—about slowing it down. There was a very strong rearguard from Ofsted about not changing the National Curriculum very much, so when we came to the review for 2000, very modest changes were made—specifically, the decision to introduce citizenship into the curriculum, which Ken Baker was strongly in favour of, because he served on the working group. I was very grateful to him for that so that we would have a consensus. I can't see how you can update and reshape what is done in your school system as a whole if you don't have a national curriculum. If you have a national curriculum, is it determined by the Department or some revamped QCDA? Michael Gove—you mentioned this, so I will pick up on it—said in The Times on Saturday, "We want to rewrite the whole thing. We're going to start as soon as we get in." I can't see how you can rewrite the whole thing and then leave it to schools to determine what curriculum they follow. This is not new, by the way. We're all full of contradictions. We want schools to have the freedom to determine their own direction and to determine their own phonics, so long as they teach phonics. We want to pick up on them when they don't teach the phonics that we like, like Ken's history lessons and the way we teach poetry. So all Education Secretaries, or Children and Schools Secretaries, have these contradictions inside their head.

  Q6  Chair: When you came into office, David, what did you see as the great challenges? The Government had been elected on the triple education pledge, and you had a Prime Minister who was very keen on education generally. What were your priorities, out of the things that we have been discussing over these past two or three years? Was the National Curriculum at the top? Was it targets for literacy and numeracy? What was top of your priorities?

  Mr Blunkett: Two contradictory things. The first was to reinforce what we had accepted, which was that schools manage schools and that, therefore, school leadership and quality teaching was the prime issue. Nothing else can trump it, because that's where the difference is made. At the same time, we wanted to say that because so many schools, particularly in the primary sector at the time, were failing to teach even the most modest tools for continuing learning—four schools in my constituency alone didn't get more than one in five children aged 11 through Level 4—we would need to have a dramatic change. Implementing the literacy and numeracy strategies—Estelle and Charles both played a part in that stage before going on to be Secretaries of State—was the prime concern. To do that, we needed some levers to pull. Gillian Shephard, in her book Shephard's Watch—I think it's page 153, because I like quoting it—says that she came in after John Patten and found there were no levers to pull at all. We've moved from one extreme to the other, as we often do. We've moved from having to take levers to going back to wanting to have no levers again. I know we'll move back again once people have discovered, a" la Michael Gove, that you do need levers to pull if you want to change what's happening in the classroom.

  Q7 Chair: But before Lord Baker was Secretary of State—certainly around that time—I remember from reading some of the autobiographies of leading politicians of the time, particularly Labour politicians, that they did not want to be Secretary of State for Education, because education was dealt with in local government and Education was a small Department and not a high priority in the Cabinet.

  Mr Blunkett: I very much wanted to be Education and Employment Secretary. I thought that being Education Secretary was profound in terms of the impact it could have on the future of our country, not just in terms of young people's own ability to fulfil their capabilities, but in terms of our social and economic well-being. I still do think that. I believe that the progress that Ken made, both in the local management of schools and the curriculum, set a foundation on which we were able to build and to bring about further reforms, which is how building blocks occur. Charles and Estelle were able to build on things that I had done, as were subsequent Secretaries of State. That is how it works. In other words, there is no day zero where you wave a magic wand and it's done.

  Q8 Chair: No, that's true, David. Chronologically, you come next, Estelle, don't you? What is your view? There is a view, if you look at this issue reasonably historically, that there was a time when Education was a small Department and local government delivered education. That has changed, partly because of Ministers in the 1980s, significantly Lord Baker. So, to some extent, power was wrested away from local government and given to a much larger, centralised Education Department, was it not?

  Baroness Morris: To some extent, that is true. However, you have to look at the context. The nation's aspiration for education had changed as well. Although teachers have always wanted high standards for all their children and they go to work every day wanting all their children to succeed, what we knew in terms of what the economy needed was that we did not need every child to leave education with a bunch of GCSEs, A-levels and a degree. I do not think that you can look at this issue without looking at the pressure that was coming on to the politics from other parts of society. The economy needs more skilled people and we need more people to be studying beyond 18. Married with that, of course, was the increasing amount of knowledge that we had about the consequences of children leaving school with no qualifications, in terms of the juvenile justice system, health and the rest of it. So, when we are talking about this issue, Education was a hugely important Department. I never had any doubt but that it was important. And the pressure, certainly from the Prime Minister and indeed the rest of Whitehall, was that education mattered. However, I do not think that you can therefore say that it was about centralising education policy making. I think that that centralisation did happen, but it was in response to things that were happening in wider society and in response to demands from more parents who were far more critical of public services and from far more parents from a much broader background who wanted their kids to do well. That is sort of the demand side on Ministers, in terms of education policy. The only other thing that I would say about that context is that it was not just education that was, I suppose, breaking away from local authorities. I think that there was a politics at the time—certainly very heavily so under Mrs Thatcher, with rate capping and the rest of it, and that continued somewhat under Tony Blair—about a lack of faith in the ability of local authorities to deliver. So, for both those reasons, I think that your conclusion is absolutely right, and that by the time that we got to the Department in 1997, things were quite centralised. May I just say one more thing? I think that there is a line of development that it is important to get, because it runs into some of your reports. Ken said that he felt that it was the politicians' job to talk about what was in the National Curriculum, and I would not disagree with that. In a democracy, that is absolutely right; in a totalitarian state, it is absolutely wrong. I think that the community is entitled, through its politicians, to have a debate about the knowledge that we want to transfer from one generation to another. I think that that is absolutely key. However, Ken then went on to say that it was not his job to tell teachers how to teach. I think that by the time we came to power in 1997, one of the reasons why we were less concerned with the curriculum was that we were more concerned with teaching and learning in the classroom. If you look at our early policies, from 1997 right the way onwards, what we learned was that just telling teachers what to teach did not, by itself, raise standards for every child. We really had to say, "Well, we have now said what you are teaching under the accountability mechanism," but once you have got all that information from Ken's accountability mechanism, you have to do something about it, if you really want to have those levers of change. I think that shift under us—that's a phrase that runs through your reports—to concentrating much more on what happened in the classroom, was probably one of the most significant shifts when Labour came to power in 1997.

  Q9 Chair: But Charles, what's your take on this? Were you tempted then or do you think we as a Government in 1997 moved to quality of teaching and learning in the classroom as the priority, as Estelle said? Was that going to be delivered by investment in teachers' higher pay or more rugged inspection? What's your particular view?

  Mr Clarke: Just a preliminary point first, Mr Sheerman. You'll recall that Fred Mulley, Jim Callaghan's Education Secretary, said that the only power he had as Education Secretary was over air raid shelters—that was a rather obscure reference to some piece of law. Just to reinforce that, I'm glad that Ken Baker referred to the Ruskin speech as a key element in the whole process. I think the reason why this process has gone forward was because of a big discussion in the Labour party in response to Ken Baker's initiatives in Government, when I think Jack Straw was the shadow Education Secretary—Neil Kinnock as leader had been very involved in education—as to whether we were to go along with these fundamental proposals or not. The decision was taken—for Labour it was a big decision—that we would, broadly speaking, go along with the decisions, although there were various arguments as we went around. That meant that by the time we got to 1997, we were in the position that you described in discussion with David Blunkett. On the local authority point, just to say again that there had been a process of key changes, one of the most significant of which was the Labour Government's decision to establish the Manpower Services Commission and to take post-16 education away from local authorities. Then the polytechnics and FE came away from local authorities—

  Lord Baker: I did that.

  Mr Clarke: I know you did, but Labour set up the MSC in the first place. I am trying to point to a process all the way down the line of moving away from the idea that local education authorities could run things in this way. That led to the process. My priorities were twofold, although I'd say that neither was completely successful. First, I thought it was extremely important to discuss the way in which subjects were taught. In fact, when I was Secretary of State, I gave responsibilities for subjects to Ministers and developed the principle of subject advisers—for example in mathematics and other areas—to try to get a coalition between the teachers, the technology, which was moving forward as well in those areas, and the assessment forms, to try really to revitalise education. One of my contributions was to fund the National Poetry Archive, which the poet laureate Andrew Motion wanted to establish, to try and bring poetry directly into the classroom. My answer for secondary education, in particular, was to try and enthuse the teachers by reference to their subjects: for example, to try to encourage maths teachers who wanted to teach but also wanted to do maths and to move that forward. I thought that enthusiasm was far and away the most powerful mechanism to do it—more important even than inspection. There were certain inspection aspects that were important, but enthusiasm was also important, although I wouldn't say we fully achieved that. The second dimension that comes through your documents is the involvement of parents. I think that the fact that school was a secret garden that parents weren't really supposed to know about was a core problem—I would say that it remains a serious problem to this day . I used to hate that NUT bumper sticker that you used to see saying, "If you can read this, thank a teacher". I don't know if you remember it, but it was a big theme and I hated it.

  Mr Blunkett: So much so you didn't go to its conference. You were a wise man, I thought.

  Mr Clarke: Quite so. But why? Because for most children their parents or carers and their teachers both play roles in educating them from a young age. That needs to be recognised far more than it is. We tried to make some changes in that direction. For example, recommendations on making parents able to have fuller access to the curriculum that their children are doing and so on remain, for me, an important element. Fundamentally, however, I was an enthuser rather than an enforcer in my approach to trying to improve educational standards.

  Chair: I'm going to call on my colleague, Paul Holmes, to carry on some questioning.

  Q10 Paul Holmes: Thanks. I should like to return to the National Curriculum, which has already been touched on. Last April, this Committee produced a report on the National Curriculum, probably one of the key recommendations of which was that it should be slimmed down, should be a minimum entitlement and should not take up 100% of the time in any subject, to return more flexibility to schools and teachers. Indeed, there has been some slimming down of the National Curriculum. When it was first introduced, I was the head of a history department. It was incredibly detailed and massively over-prescriptive. There were rows and volumes of ring binders telling me exactly what I had to do every lesson, every day, every week from 11 to 18. Does anybody want to comment on that?

  Lord Baker: When the curriculum had to be fashioned, I had to start somewhere. I entirely agree that it was over-prescriptive and too long, but I knew perfectly well it would be whittled down. Being a realistic politician, I knew that it was a beginning. For example, we had history and foreign languages up to 16. They were dropped by Ken Clarke later because it was too much to do. The biggest regret I have about the formation of the National Curriculum is that I did not extend the teaching day by one period. I wanted to do that, but had just settled the teachers' strike. One settlement of the teachers' strike was the number of hours in the contract that a teacher was allowed to teach each year. I would have had to open up the whole negotiation on that again and could not do it. If there had been one more teaching period, it would have relieved you to some extent, although not entirely because it was over-prescriptive, I agree. Coming to your report, I think what is needed now is a fundamental overhaul of the curriculum, particularly at the age of 14. There is still a very strong argument for a National Curriculum of quite a prescriptive nature up to 14, but at that point there is a watershed. I have come to the conclusion that 14 is the watershed in education. I would like to see the transfer age moved from 11 to 14. Two years ago, Ron Dearing and I started to send around documents on a new type of college for 14-19. There have been several interesting changes under Labour. The literacy and numeracy initiative that David took was very important. The big change is the 14-19 curriculum, which I think can now transform English education. If you are going to have a 14-19 curriculum, which was one of the great discoveries of the Labour Government under Mike Tomlinson four or five years ago, you have to have institutions that can deliver it. That means you have to have colleges and schools that can teach at 14 specialisms such as engineering or the building trade alongside the GCSE subjects. I suspect that that will be the biggest change over the next five to 10 years in English education. I think it will transform everything in English education and lead to an enormous improvement, because alongside the vocational and technical specialism subjects such as engineering, you will learn maths for engineering and English for the building trade. That has never been achieved in the English education system. We commissioned research at Exeter, which I have left with you, to show how all the initiatives in English education in the past have failed and how we hope that this time we will succeed. This is a fundamental change to the curriculum.

  Baroness Morris: Yes, on Ken's point, I wanted to say something more general about the curriculum that Paul mentioned. I think that is right about 14-19. As long as we've got this system whereby the National Curriculum finishes at 16 and yet we talk about a cohesive 14-19 strategy, it will never work. I would say two things. I think GCSEs ought to be at 14. I see no reason for an exam at 16. It used to be called a school leaving exam and in fact some people still call it that. On the one hand, we are saying that it's the biggest exam you've ever done, yet it comes two years through a cohesive four-year programme when we are trying to give the message to children and young people that they need to stay in learning. I think one way in which we could really ratchet up the pace of learning is to do the National Curriculum exams at the age of 14, at the end of either year 8 or year 9. I would want to look at the details. If we did that, it would free us and open up 14-19 so that children could learn in one or more institutions, but not have to make key decisions twice. At the moment, we want them to make a key decision at 14 and a key decision at 16. We are finding ourselves putting into play all sorts of partnerships and relationships to make that cohesive, whereas the question we ought to ask is, what is stopping it being cohesive? I feel strongly that it is GCSEs at 16. I would abolish them and, although I am not sure it's doable, I would have 5-14 and 14-19. There is no reason to change schools now at 11, because we used to do that for the 11-plus. Can I just say one thing about the curriculum in general? It's all right saying we ought to thin down the curriculum, but that means every one of us giving up our favourite subject, or our favourite bit of a subject, which we demand that children be taught. My favourite thing is listening to the "Today" programme when somebody is on about some woe in society or some problem with the youth of today. You can time these things on your watch; you can give them a minute and a half before someone says, "Why don't the schools teach this?" Too often, politicians respond by saying, "We will get the schools to teach it" or "We'll advise the schools to teach it." I could be persuaded, maybe, that we ought to go for a slimmer curriculum, but don't pretend that that doesn't leave really tough decisions. I think it means a change of approach from politicians, the media and parents, because once you take that lever away from national government, it no longer rests with them. The last thing I would say is that I experienced this when I gave schools the decision about whether to teach modern foreign languages in Key Stage 4. That's exactly what you're recommending. I freed things up, trusted the teachers, trusted the head teachers and said, "You do exactly what you want." Ever since, there's been nothing but complaints that children no longer have to do a modern foreign language. That was the right decision, and it will be proven right in time, but the decision that I took in 2001-02 had consequences. So it's easy to say we'll free things up and slim them down, but it really creates a different curriculum, and I would want to see the agreement about what was in the freed-up curriculum before I came to a final decision.

  Mr Blunkett: Very briefly, this is a very interesting part of the discussion; it reveals the contradictions. As with Estelle and languages, I regret not maintaining history as a mandatory subject post-14, yet other people would—

  Baroness Morris: That's because you like history, David.

  Mr Blunkett: That is because I like history. I think it's really important and we learn lessons from it.

  Lord Baker: And the only other country in Europe that drops history at 14 is Albania.

  Mr Blunkett: Right. I shall reflect on that in due course. The point I was going to make was about the early part of the discussion initiated by the question. We actually address the curriculum as though it is the curriculum that was overloaded, rather than the curriculum we have. We address the curriculum in a world where we have fewer teaching hours than we did when I was a child, and Ken Baker has referred to that. I didn't leave school until four o'clock, and that was taken for granted. We now have extended days to compensate for that, but I gather the Secretary of State is cutting some of the cash for that, so we perhaps won't have so many extended days in future. The point I really want to make is that in every sphere, if you're going to examine—whether it's at 14 rather than 16 or whether it's A-levels, which are the most rigid part of the curriculum, by the way, for those who are great enthusiasts for them—you have to have an assurance that the young people who are being assessed, tested or examined have actually covered that area; you just have to. If you don't want that and you don't want children across the country to have a pretty good grasp, wherever they are, of what we need to do, and you want to go back to the free-for-all that led schools to let children down so very badly, let's do it, but let's do it with our eyes wide open.

  Mr Clarke: Two or three things. First, I agree 100% on 14-19. The biggest failure over this period of the Labour Government is that we didn't finally implement the Tomlinson proposals on 14-19. We should have done that just before the 2005 general election, shortly after I left office, for a variety of reasons. Actually, that was largely associated with what David has just said about people's attachment to A-levels. We should have gone for it, difficult though that was. I have to say to Ken that there were also issues on the Conservative side of the fence; it was not as though there was a consensus on this. People were making direct arguments based on ignorance. Secondly, on 14-19, I found it very difficult to sort out the financing issues between local education authorities funding schools and other institutions funding post-16 institutions, and that has not been tackled. It is very tough to tackle. The key point—this is why I agree with what Ken says—is the relationship between work and education. I believed, and continue to believe, that we should have a phase from 14-19 where work is a continuous part of what children experience. There are many examples that I could give of people on pre-apprenticeships moving to apprenticeships and so on. But children with a great deal of academic ability should also be doing more work experience in schools. Work experience is a fly-by-night operation—it is not done properly and it is not carried through effectively. Actually, in a proper 14-19 diploma framework, there are many opportunities that have a virtue of saying not that education is a matter for the schools, but that it is a matter for all of us, including employers, that would be extremely interesting and worthwhile. The fourth point, or the third point, rather—I told you maths wasn't my special subject—relates to the question of teaching and training. With all respect to Ken, I am very sad about the way the Baker days developed. It was correctly done for training, but I still don't believe to this day that there is any reason why you can't do a lot of teacher training outside the school terms and operate on that basis. David set up a tremendous institution—the national centre for educating head teachers—and I remember talking to heads there and asking why we have to spend so much on training because we have to get in cover and why there can't be a routine whereby teachers routinely do training, as happens in many other walks of life, either at weekends or even after school.

  Baroness Morris: But—

  Mr Clarke: I know that there is some, but there should be far more. The truth is that at the end of the day we did not succeed in really grappling with the problem of teacher professionalism in that area, for a variety of reasons, and it goes right back to the disputes and strikes in schools in the '80s. They are all difficult to resolve and all problematic, but at the end of the day you will not get what you need until you get a greater commitment from teachers both to teach and to train themselves to teach better. That has been a massive constraint on development in any of these areas.

  Q11 Mr Carswell: I have a couple of questions for you, Lord Baker. I have a very different view, so I would be fascinated to find out a bit more about why you hold your view. You justified the National Curriculum with the need for consistency. The reason you gave, when pressed, was the need for that consistency and the idea of transportability. I find it very difficult to believe that mums and dads around the country were screaming out for harmonisation because little Johnny was finding it too difficult when he went from one school to another. We visited Canada, where there are different curriculums in different provinces and very high rates of labour mobility between them. Folk adapt, and there are many aspects of life in which the state doesn't define the terms of interoperability and we are capable of managing ourselves. At the same time, when you have centralisation, you get difference, but paradoxically it is arbitrary difference. Surely creating standardisation is just an excuse for big Government that suppresses difference, innovation and dynamism. Surely it is a sledgehammer to miss a nut to say that interoperability demands it.

  Lord Baker: I don't think that has been the consequence of the National Curriculum. You must appreciate that I also introduced technology colleges and devolving budgets to local schools so that they could run themselves. They then said, "We'll give them breakfast, and then we'll teach till 6 o'clock." They had considerable flexibility to adapt the National Curriculum. I still think, however, that there is a need for a framework. I remember Bill Bennett, a former US Education Secretary, bemoaning the fact that he couldn't do that in America and was very depressed about it. If you speak to those in the American education system, time and again they will say that they are lacking a framework. The French Minister, Monsieur Cheve"nement, was much more amusing. He has now disappeared from the scene, but he was a highly cultivated and cultured man. He wasn't left-wing: he was a Jacobin. He said one day, "I'm going to write the French National Curriculum this weekend myself." That is prescriptive, and I wouldn't favour that.

  Mr Carswell: And one country invented the internet and the other didn't.

  Lord Baker: Well, one man invented the internet. I think you needn't be so afraid of being prescriptive in the National Curriculum, because it is immensely flexible and can be developed. I would like to see it developed in all sorts of ways post-14. If you accept 14 as a watershed, you'll get all the flexibility you want.

  Q12 Mr Carswell: But it did, with respect, put in place the architecture of central control. When you set it up, did you envisage the kind of quangos presiding over it that we have today? I was interested to hear that you wanted right-wing maths, whatever that happens to be. Some people would say that the architecture—

  Lord Baker: I didn't say that right-wing maths—

  Mr Carswell: Some people would say that the architecture of central control is inherently leftist, and that, far from ridding the curriculum and the schools of a loony left agenda, you put in place the architecture of central control that has been subject to capture by the leftist educational establishment. How do you respond to that?

  Lord Baker: I really don't think that that has happened. It is not for me to apologise for the moderate nature of the Ministers around me today, but I just don't think that that has happened.

  Lord Baker: I can see your concern about central control, but I don't think that I was a centralist. The only way I was a centralist was in relation to the National Curriculum, and you are quite right to identify that. If you want to look at it in political terms, I feel that socialism is about the hub of the wheel and that conservatism is about the rim of the wheel. What I was trying to do was to extend as much power as possible to the rim of the wheel.

  Q13 Mr Carswell: So the National Curriculum was about localism?

  Lord Baker: Schools are left to run their own budgets. That's tremendous localism. I can tell you that I found about 50 schools in the curriculum doing peace studies. As a Tory, do you think that that is a good idea in a school? That's what local organisation in the curriculum means, and as a Tory you'd welcome that, would you?

  Chair: We must now suspend the sitting for a Division, but I want us to resume as soon as we are quorate.

    Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

    On resuming—

  Chair: That was a nice little natural break. Shall we have a competition to see if anyone who voted knows what we voted on? There are no offers. I just remind you of last week when we had free votes and everyone looked like lost sheep, asking which pen to go into.

  Q14 Mr Carswell: We were in the middle of talking about how the National Curriculum was decentralist. If we did not have a National Curriculum, Lord Baker, would there really not still be a core body of knowledge that every schoolchild would know? There are lots of things that we don't have state determination of. We don't have a state menu but miraculously, when I go into a supermarket, the same range of breakfast cereals is available in almost any part of the country.

  Mr Blunkett: But you are not examined on your diet.

  Q15 Mr Carswell: With respect, Mr Blunkett, this is a serious point about consumer choice. If you have institutions that answer outwardly to people, rather than inwardly and upwardly to officials, the paradox is that you quite often get standardisation, because people essentially want the same things, particularly for their children. If you didn't have a state-determined National Curriculum, or if you allowed schools to opt out of the National Curriculum, would you not still in effect have an organic National Curriculum that was determined by parents and schools rather than officials?

  Lord Baker: What in the Carswell system would be the broad body of knowledge you would expect children to have?

  Mr Carswell: For many years we didn't have a National Curriculum, but that broad body of knowledge was self-defining.

  Lord Baker: With great respect, we have had a National Curriculum and curriculum studies since the middle of the 19th century. Read the research paper that I sent you. At Exeter University, they tell you all about it. There was a series of National Curriculums, but for when the school leaving age was 12, you must remember. It was only 14 in 1918. So the National Curriculum existed up until 1914. There was a broad body, basically for the generality of schools. There is a whole literature on this. There is a very good report by the policy group.

  Q16 Mr Carswell: By the Select Committee?

  Lord Baker: No, no, no; better than that. There was a very good policy paper before Christmas by Civitas on the development of the National Curriculum from which everybody could learn a lot. Such a body of knowledge existed. I do not know what your body would be when you say there is a broad agreement on what people should know. All I can say is that I came across schools where dinosaurs were being taught for the third time because the teacher was not up to teaching anything else. Do you think knowing about dinosaurs would be in your broad body of knowledge?

  Q17 Mr Carswell: I hope that we would know about dinosaurs. I will not make the obvious pun. It has become commonplace for people to say that we need a National Curriculum, but it needs to be slimmed down. It has become a cliche to say that. You said that you thought that if you had a National Curriculum it would inevitably be whittled down. Is the opposite not the case? If you create a National Curriculum, it then becomes a question of what to put in it. There is this ratcheting up of pressure. Politicians—Tory ones—often say we have to have proper British history, whatever that is. Sometimes left-wing politicians demand certain things. An event will happen that will lead people to demand some sort of addition to the curriculum. Is there not a danger that, far from slimming down the National Curriculum, by having one you are always going to have this ratcheting up?

  Lord Baker: It will only ratchet up if subjects are added. Citizenship was added, and now public health and PHS are going to be added as well, which means that there is a squeeze on the rest of the curriculum. Since 1987 or 1988, the teaching day in most schools has extended. I remember what David said. I went to a Church of England primary school and we never left school before 4 or 4.30. When you drive around England today, you will find children wandering around the streets at about 2.30 or 3. Quite a lot has changed. Many schools have decided themselves, using the powers that they got in independence, to extend the teaching day and do very much more. To believe that there is great prescription from the centre is something of an illusion in English education.

  Chair: Does anyone else want to come in on that?

  Mr Clarke: I should like to add one point. Of course I agree with what Ken Baker said, but there is also a self-censoring approach of the school world—of the profession—even when freedoms are given. When Estelle was Secretary of State, significant freedoms were given to schools of the kind that Kenneth described. There was the so-called freedom to innovate, and various things of that kind. What was so striking was that, even on the variation of the time starting the school day, there was not a great coming forward of people saying that they wanted to do this. A set of cultures had evolved that was extremely conservative and inflexible. I think Ken Baker is telling the truth when he says that this Government, too, were trying in various respects to give more powers to local schools to enable them to take on certain areas. The question is a more deeply cultural point than the formal control mechanisms or the formal financing mechanisms.

  Q18 Mr Carswell: Baroness Morris, I have a slightly different question and it is more to do with how the state institutions that oversee the curriculum are made properly accountable. I was not an MP then, but I remember watching on television the fiasco over A-levels, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the reduction in A-level grades, and thinking that you were being unfairly treated because you as the Minister were being asked to make and justify decisions when the quango had failed to deliver public policy properly. Do you think that these quangos are properly accountable to Parliament and Ministers? Do you think that the old method of accountability by these institutions for what is a very important area of public policy works? Do you not think that Ministers are sometimes forced either to decide to play it safe and, in effect, be a mouthpiece for the quango apparatus, or to take them on and therefore be put in this difficult and invidious position?

  Baroness Morris: I think it's an important and difficult question. Ofsted has it easier in that it is accountable to Parliament. Its annual report goes to Parliament, and I think that that works quite well. I have not thought as to whether that might be possible with more quangos. I never ever felt that I was there to speak on behalf of the quango. Sometimes the issue was that something I personally wanted to do wasn't the recommendation of the quango, and then you would have to go into long negotiations. But in terms of, for example, the A-levels, that is just life and that is politics, and that is the position we find ourselves in. Much as we devolve power to other people, we remain accountable as the elected politicians. I, too, thought it wasn't fair on many occasions during those difficult few weeks, but I think I learned to accept that. David has talked about this in the past as well. There is a line of thought that says, if we devolve it, it's got to be a deal, and if we say it's QCA that's checking the A-levels and looking at the syllabuses, society as a whole has to realise that and stop demanding of politicians that they do something about it; otherwise, they will go in and control quangos. I think it is a messy relationship, and one thing that's come out in your Select Committee reports—not this one, but in previous ones—is that the relationship between civil servants and the education quangos is not quite right. I found, during those A-level difficulties, that I'd got a whole Department that was mirroring what went on at the QCA, and had people who were sitting through the meetings. What they were doing there, and how this had happened, given that they were there, I think was always a bit of a mystery to me. So I think it's a bit of an uneasy relationship, but do we want to bring them back into the centre? No. It's as simple as that. Did I, as a politician, want to lose all influence? No, I didn't. The truth is that when it works, it works, but when it goes wrong, it's a really big thing that goes wrong. I think that's the problem.

  Mr Clarke: You could always give a role to the Select Committees. The Treasury Committee in the 1997-2001 Parliament, of which I was a member, agreed during the Parliament to have a formal set of hearings into every non-departmental body that was under the Treasury's remit, into the Treasury itself, and also the international organisations—the International Monetary Fund, and so on—although there was no apparent need. We set up a sub-committee of the Treasury Committee to do this, and the effect was accountability and an opening up of issues, which gave opportunities to both the quangos and parliamentarians to develop a process to set up accountability. It was interesting and an innovation. I think what many of those organisations need is regular, consistent, predictable parliamentary and public accountability.

  Q19 Mr Carswell: So it would be like a confirmation hearing to appoint the head, and perhaps an annual hearing?

  Mr Clarke: I was also in favour of confirmation hearings for certain key roles. I wouldn't say necessarily for the heads of all organisations, but I argued that in Parliament for the Governor of the Bank of England, for example, and there are issues here as well. It wasn't simply for the formality; it was for having a formal set of hearings of whatever length the Select Committee decided into all the non-departmental bodies. That is quite a formidable piece of work. When I was Secretary of State, there was a large number. I cannot remember what it was, but it was about 20 or 25 organisations that you would have been talking about to do it over a four-year period.

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