Mike Baker: Highly respected education correspondent
He was in his element at conferences, juggling stories for different BBC news outlets
Thursday 04 October 2012
For nearly 20 years, Mike Baker who has died of cancer at 55, was the authoritative face and voice of education news. As the BBC's education correspondent he was a familiar sight on news bulletins addressing the camera in front of classrooms on all the major issues of the day. His clear and unfussy analysis on both TV and radio made often complex subjects accessible to a wide audience.
His depth of knowledge enabled him to differentiate between the froth and the meat of an issue and therefore be confident enough to stand firm against news editors when he believed they could not. Similarly, he knew more than the here today, gone tomorrow Secretaries of State. In 2002, he wrote an open letter on the BBC news website to one such, Estelle Morris, laying out in some detail his practical and radical solutions to the hot topic of A-Level reform. Four days later, Morris resigned her post saying she was not up to the job. Mike's education columns for the BBC News website and later for the Education Guardian gave him greater scope in which to expound his thoughts on education matters. The respect he earned was evident in the host of awards he won including in 2011 Best Online Education Commentary and twice Educational Journalist of the Year.
He was born in Colchester in 1957. Education was in his blood. His mother was a primary school teacher and his father a Further Education college Principal turned academic who three times stood unsuccessfully for parliament as the Labour candidate in Lowestoft. Mike grew up in Braintree and later wrote a history of the town. He received a state education, latterly at Colchester Royal Grammar School where he excelled at sport as well as academically and in 1976 went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he graduated in English.
He joined the BBC's News Trainee scheme in 1980 and worked at Westminster, where he soon rose to become a political correspondent, an excellent foundation for his future career. When John Birt decided to beef up the BBC's news output by creating an array of specialist correspondents in 1989, Mike secured the education correspondent post. A self-confessed workaholic, he was in his element at Easter teachers' union conferences juggling several stories for different BBC outlets. His thoroughness, knowledge and reliability ensured all sections within education trusted him and his commitment to his audience was no better illustrated than by his publications Does Education Get the Media It Deserves (2000), Who Rules Our Schools (1994) and A Parent's Guide to the New Curriculum (1992). He was one of the first BBC correspondents to embrace the digital revolution by writing a weekly education column for the BBC news website that generated instant and rewarding feedback. He continued the column after leaving the BBC in 2007, when his prestige was such that he became a much sought-after conference chair and a major contributor to the new and innovative Teachers TV channel.
Mike had no luck in health matters. He had to give up his great loves of running (four marathons) and hockey after a botched cartilage operation on his knee in 2004 led to his contracting MRSA. So he took up cycling instead. Freelancing gave him more time to indulge his greatest non-participatory sporting interest – football. Though he latterly became a Fulham season ticket holder, his heart was with Ipswich Town whom he had supported since childhood.
In August 2011 he fell ill with lung cancer, a cruel blow to one so active who had never smoked. In typical style, he researched the disease as thoroughly as he would an education topic. After undergoing chemotherapy, he radically altered his diet, cutting down on glucose on which he believed the cancer thrived and consuming dozens of enzymes, vitamins, fruit and raw vegetables to encourage normal cell growth. This from a stalwart of the BBC canteen and a connoisseur of sticky toffee pudding!
He became convinced that years of stress – he was not only dedicated but also a great worrier – had contributed to his acquiring the disease. He began devoting more time to himself, cycling, learning to make furniture and to play the ukulele. His cancer blog brought him a new audience. It even won him yet another award. Each post typified him – generous of spirit, humbling, inspiring, never self-pitying and ever-optimistic. They talked of the huge support he'd received from his many friends and above all his family. He managed to write with great verve and clarity even as his condition worsened, exemplified by this description of his night sweats at London's Royal Marsden Hospital.
"I returned to the helm but the stormy waters were crashing about me. After another vortex of time, I was every bit as drenched as before. Undaunted the nurses rapidly changed all the bedclothes again… then gratefully I returned to sleep. I woke some time later, once again soaked right through but feeling like the shipwreck survivor thrown up on a safe shore."
Michael Baker, journalist: born 16 February 1957; married Chrissy (two daughters); died 21 September 2012.
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