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The Thirty Year War: My Life Reporting on Education – R. Garner

October 17, 2017

This book reminds me how a fulfilling and stimulating vocation was ruined by successive political interventions that made it turn into a nightmare, sucking all the joy out of it.

There’s mention of OFSTED chief Christopher Woodhead claiming that there were 15,000 incomnpetent teachers, a figure hastily revised down to 3,000.

There is no index and the grumbling controversy about RE since GERBIL isn’t even mentioned and the subject only gets a look in on pp. 115 and 150 in relation to the EBacc.

Garner retired last year and wrote this book in a matter of weeks. He starts with his formative period at The Times Educational Supplement, before he moved to The Mirror and latterly The Independent. His first education secretary was Mark Carlisle, in the early 1980s, and we are taken on a tour through all the big names that followed – Keith Joseph, Ken Baker, David Blunkett, Estelle Morris – through to the present day.

Garner writes with journalistic detachment. He notes that he never felt part of the education community: always at the side of it, glancing in and noting down what he saw. Because of this, stories focus on the facts, told at speed, zipping over sometimes huge controversies and boiling down to their essence.

Charles Clarke gets a particularly kind write-up, while he ruthlessly labels all the policies that the “gaffe-prone” John Patten failed to implement.


from 1997 to 16 years I seem to have been reporting on the ‘language dunces of Europe’

and if I am to reflect on what was the most important advance in the education system during my 36 years of reporting, I would have to say the abolition of corporal punishment would rank highly.

Sir Keith was moved from the Department of Industry where he had agonised over the giving out of taxpayers’ money to ‘lame duck’ industries such as steel and shipbuilding. It was a policy that jarred with his monetarist principles – here was a complicated man full of compassion and deeply interested in the fight against poverty on the one hand but committed to support the harshest of economic policies on the other. At one time he was considered as future prime ministerial material but was characterised as ‘The Mad Monk’ earlier in his career after he had spoken out against the dangers of uncontrolled breeding amongst the poor.

He was probably best summed up by political adviser Stuart Sexton a couple of years after he had left office. Mr Sexton said Sir Keith spent too much time agonising over school closure decisions whilst in office, describing him as “a man who loves the debate but never the decision”.

Interestingly enough, it was stressed at the beginning that the level four target set for the test for 11-year-olds should not be seen as a pass/fail mark. It was set at the level that an average child should reach. Therefore, those politicians who have decried the fact that only 50 per cent reached the attainment target at the outset were missing the point – sometimes wilfully, I would say, in an attempt to discredit opponents of the reforms. One unnamed minister is said to have asked bemused officials at one point: “Why are there 50 per cent of kids who are below the average?” He was obviously not a candidate for a level four rating in maths himself.

At first sight, Mr Patten, an Oxford MP, appeared to have one or two things going for him. His daughter, Mary Claire, aged five, attended a state school – St Vincent de Paul primary in Westminster. It made him the first holder of his office since the Conservatives regained power in 1979 to have a child going through the state education system.

His appointment took most pundits aback. He had been a junior minister in the previous administration for several years and was not thought of as a high-flyer. Indeed, there were some who suggested that whoever had called on John Major’s behalf to offer him the post had dialled the wrong number – and had been meant to offer the job to Chris Patten, a former Schools Minister who later became chairman of the party and director general of the BBC, and who had been tipped for high office by most observers….. They dubbed him the ‘Invisible Man’ – a theme The Mirror was happy to exploit with a picture of him swathed in bandages. It was an epithet which stuck to him for the rest of his period in office.

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