Chalk Talk: David Blunkett goes back to schools - and universities


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To Pearson plc for an evening with the former Secretary of State David Blunkett, who was reminiscing about his time in charge of the nation's education system.

He expressed great sympathy for his Conservative predecessor Baroness Shephard, who, he said, was told by the then Prime Minister, John Major, “not to rock the boat” after Lord Patten's period at the helm. Straining to be diplomatic, he described Lord Patten's regime by saying: “It could have been a bit off-the-wall.”

He described his four years in charge as “exhilarating” and issued a reminder that all education services were under one roof, so he had responsibility for universities as well as schools – making it clear he felt that higher education should never have been hived off to a separate department, as it was in Labour's latter years.

The message from his government, he said, was: “We haven't got time to mess about, because these are children's lives.” His proudest boast was an 18 per cent increase in the number of children who could read and write to the required standard by the age of 11.

However, he described one of his main obstacles as those in education who failed to sign up to his “mini-revolution”. “People did say you can't really do what you want with these children, because of their family backgrounds and because of their experience,” he said. “That was dispiriting.”

'Twas (and 'tis) ever thus, methinks. Shades, there, of the current Education Secretary Michael Gove's “enemies of promise”.

Mr Blunkett was critical of the current regime for promoting the image of “a 1950s prep school” as being the ideal for today's system to follow, and spoke of the urgent need to prepare today's young people for the world of work by placing a greater emphasis on skills and vocational education. “Thirty per cent of our current graduates are doing jobs that don't merit a degree,” he added.

He also spoke with less than enthusiasm about officials from the Treasury whom he had met during his ministerial career – painting them as middle class, mainly from privileged backgrounds and somewhat removed from the real world.

One suspects that, here again, Mr Gove might have some sympathy with him.