Column: Dennis Richards - The changing role of ministers

Many ministers have attempted to make a significant difference to exams before being moved on.
Many ministers have attempted to make a significant difference to exams before being moved on.
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After more than 40 years in education it would appear that I have served under no fewer than 24 Government Ministers of Education.

This in itself is something of a misnomer as the name of the role has changed almost as often as the incumbents. Science was put into the title at one stage, as was employment.

Skills also made an appearance at one stage. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was the longest title on record and the shortest lived.

It had only one holder. Ed Balls. Quite. Known throughout the education world as the Department for Carpets and Soft Furnishings in a desperate bid to get the words in the right order, Balls’ successor, Michael Gove (as in Gove Divine all Goves Excelling) dropped all the awkward bits in the title, including the children. Quite.

A challenge to name all the afore-mentioned 24 Government ministers would result in abject failure on my part. Fred Mulley? John Patten? Ruth Kelly? Ruth Who?

Truth be told I can only recall two of them having a lasting and wholly positive impact. It still seems really remarkable that David Blunkett, blind from birth, born into modest South Yorkshire circumstances, was able to rise to the highest education office in the land.

Once there, he imposed his passion for literacy and numeracy on the early years of schooling. While the way it is assessed continues to cause angst and conflict, no one will question again the primary duty of our schools to teach, and then enable, children to read. From the other side of the political divide, Sir Keith Joseph was another remarkable Education Secretary, whose reforming zeal has stood the test of time.

GCSE replaced the ‘O’ Level/CSE sheep and goats divide as long ago as 1988. Battered throughout its history as a dumbing down exercise, it continues to survive and thrive.

And so, like most of his predecessors, Michael Gove also attempted to make a significant difference before being moved on, a year or so ago. Which is why Harrogate parents with a son or daughter in Year 11 are currently trying to understand what on earth is happening with A- levels. In simple terms AS level results no longer count as half an A-level.

AS level will become a separate qualification entirely from September 2016. In most subjects it is already. Schools are in a dilemma.

Do we continue to offer AS level or not? It will still exist, it just won’t count. Some schools are continuing to offer four subject choices; others three. In other words, it’s a mess. You can bet your bottom dollar that, when we have students only doing exams at the end of two years of sixth form study, one or two of our less industrious students may well spend most of the lower sixth year messing about. I know I did.

Which will mean in a few years’ time, a future Education Minister will propose an exam at the end of Year 12.

They will call it something else, but it will be AS level in all but name. So somehow I can’t see Mr Gove’s reforms matching either Blunkett or Joseph’s visionary changes.

Follow your school’s advice; they are well used to sorting out half- baked ideas of this kind on your behalf.

Thankfully there are always children around in schools to rescue us from ourselves and our own pomposity.

Taking an assembly in a well-known local primary school the other day, I waxed lyrical about the magnificent new vehicles which bear the number 36 and travel up and down the A61 from Ripon to Leeds all day and every day.

Nerds like me had noticed a whole new raft of registration plates. I proudly informed the children that I was the privileged holder of a pass which enables me to travel freely on a 36 bus as and when I choose. When enquiring of the children as to why this could be so, (bad mistake), Ned opined: “Because you are age-expired.” Changing the subject rapidly to aircraft and the luxury entertainment on offer on long haul flights Jacob informed me he had recently been to South Africa. “What could you watch on the back of the seat of the passenger in front of you.” “The sick bag,” says, Jacob, whose journey had clearly gone badly. Like my assembly.

The schools are busy organising a “mock” EU referendum.

The debate is hotting up.

Apparently David Coburn, a UKIP MEP, claims that toasters cannot make his toast sufficiently brown because of EU rules. The leader of UKIP’s Italian allies in this complaint is apparently a certain Beppo Grillo.

Meanwhile the Guardian website has published “Why I’ll leave the UK if Britain votes no to Europe”. It was written by one Oliver Imhoff.

We’re in for some fun.