John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling. Ken Clarke’s Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir was published by Macmillan last month and is available at Amazon for £6.99.
Ken Clarke’s tenure at the Department of Education and Science was short – around 18 months – and was sandwiched between two unsuccessful ministers, one of whom, he tells us, had to be reminded that he had ever been there at all. Clarke was not great on detail, and, in common with several Secretaries of State, had had little or nothing to say about education before he was appointed. A journalist friend got into hot water for quoting an off the cuff remark he made about reading, in the back of his car, to the effect that seven year olds could not even read three words.
He was, though, quick to detect rubbish and obfuscation, both of which he rightly identified as the stock in trade of his civil servants. They were against any form of academic excellence, opposed to testing, and in an unholy alliance with the teachers’ unions and local authorities to minimise – it would be libellous to say kill off – the reforms initiated by Kenneth Baker. The man he cites as his main adversary, Nick Stuart CB, is still active, and it would be interesting to have his view on their exchanges. Clarke’s approach, having listened to all of the arguments presented against his policies, was to spell out his decisions at the end of each meeting, without much hope of them being carried through. Our opponents, then as now, played a long game, and knew that a minister’s time is usually short.
As a middle-ranking local authority officer, I was delighted when Clarke arrived and sorry when he left. I’d watched how the authority I worked for had thumbed its nose at Baker – for example, by spending the money he had allocated for technology on new furniture for its teachers’ centres. I’d sat and listened to senior colleagues say they would subvert anything they disagreed with, and ignore spelling completely. I’d seen government committees, beginning with the Bullock committee set up by Margaret Thatcher to tackle falling literacy standards, packed by civil servants, and in that case by HMI, with people determined to do the exact opposite to what the Government intended.
I felt Clarke was on our side, knew what these people were up to, and shared my contempt for what they were doing, if not for them personally. The more they groaned at him, the happier I became, and I had a moment of personal satisfaction when I joined a deputation from the Campaign for Real Education to see Tim Eggar, his minister of state, and persuaded him to cancel a £28m project to promote English teaching that had been taken over by the progressives.
Clarke himself spent a lot of his time seeing off knowledge-free curriculum proposals on virtually every subject – he cites history, geography and music – and getting testing onto the agenda. He founded Ofsted, and appointed Chris Woodhead to lead it. He did his best to promote grant-maintained schools – rebranded by Blair as Academies – but had to fight local authority subversion to do so. He did manage to remove further education and sixth form colleges from their control.
He does not mention the role of the Catholic Church in this episode, but it was interesting. In my authority, Essex, Catholic schools were opposed to the progressive and interfering ways of the education department, and some were allowed to leave by the bishop. In neighbouring Havering, where the authority was less assertive, the bishop made sure that his appointed governors kept their schools within the system. Catholic school inspectors were, incidentally, trained to the new Ofsted standards. I can only agree with Clarke on the damage done to his innovation by Labour’s appointments as chief inspector.
Clarke took over education in turbulent times, right at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. As Chancellor, he was the most successful minister in John Major’s cabinet, setting up the economic conditions that made life easy for Blair in his early years. Still, I wish there were more, and much more, to say about his work in education, to which he was a loss.