Lord Baker of Dorking is Dead

 

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

8 November 2018

 In 1982-1983 I had the joy of working at the University of London Institute of Education and met a lot of the influential folk who were trying to save the education system from its myopic view of what a country with a rapidly changing demographic needed if it was to have a well-educated, skillful and thoughtful community.

Margaret Thatcher was in charge of the country and the Secretary for Education was Kenneth Baker after Sir Keith Joseph had occupied that role. Kenneth Baker had a distinguished political career and this was rewarded by his becoming Lord Baker of Dorking. He did not drift quietly into the background but maintained a fervent interest in education and in changing a system in which too many young people were failing.

Lord Baker of Dorking died recently and English education is more than a little the worse for that. Because Lord Baker used his considerable presence and reputation in arguing for a revised structure for education and, having argued, he set about implementing a response.

He had a clear view that education had three phases: 5–9 (primary), 9–14(middle) and 14–18 (secondary). It was his view that primary should focus on the essentials while the middle schools were the place for introducing students to specialist teaching and subject disciplines. What came next was spelt out without doubt or hesitancy.

The solution is surely clear; a single phase of 14 – 18 education in which young people study a variety of subjects to a greater or lesser degree of depth, over a span of four years, and adapted to their individual talents and preferred learning styles.[1]

He didn’t just make speeches about, but developed a plan for what he called University Technical Schools that would provide pathways for students aged 14 – 18 years. He defended the 14 year age starting point:

“I am convinced that most young people are ready to choose between styles and types of learning by the time 14.”[2]

He set out to establish four pathways in the University Technical Schools (which it must be said had a focus on the high achievers) which were a technical pathway, a liberal arts pathway, a sports and creative arts pathway, and a career pathway.

He had a clear view on why vocational education had become a less valuable pathway in the eyes of many but vigorously dismissed arguments such as:

  • that there is no evidence that vocational education prior to age 16 led to improvements in general attainment – there is much evidence and sound research which he could detail from multiple sources;
  • that lengthening compulsory education [3] does extend childhood and dependency – this does not mean that we should assume that young people do not know what they are good at, what they like and what they want to do after 9 years of required school attendance then the quality of that education has to be questioned!”

 

He quipped once when asked why 14 – 18 had become his interest, he replied that “15 would be too late and 17 would be to early”. Reflection on this statement suggests that he brought considerable knowledge and wisdom about education to his thinking. We have come to understand why many students have dropped out of school by age 15 years and it takes until about 18 years of age for education institutions to make an impact in preparing a student for the workforce in a substantial manner which would include work experience.

Lord Barker backed his 14–18 years sub-sector advocacy on three clear areas where he felt that education was not adding value to the lives of young people by failing to enhance their general lives, by not promoting effective connections with employment opportunities and by giving a coherence and integrity to the shape of an “inchoate” education system.

I had an email exchange with him 18 months ago which was concluded by his senior staff member who relayed a message: “I would very much like to visit New Zealand before I die.”

It never happened and I am a little saddened by that.

[1] Baker, Kenneth (2013) 14 – 18 A New Vision for Secondary Education, Bloomsbury, London. p.19

[2] Baker, Kenneth (2013) op.cit. p.20

 

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