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FEfocus Editorial - Colleges must take charge of TechBac

Today, Lord Baker writes for FE Focus as chairman of Edge, in which capacity he has been publicly making the case for vocational education in an admirable way for just over a year.

But he is a man of many talents, and in his spare time he appears to be running his own education policy from outside Government, with his development of university technical colleges. This impression is only heightened by his development of a technical and vocational alternative to the English Baccalaureate (page 1).

In some ways, he is taking advantage of a power vacuum. The education secretary is not overly preoccupied with vocational education, except where it is thought a threat to academic standards. And FE minister John Hayes has focused on his post-16 brief rather than developing a distinct 14 to 19 phase.

But few other people outside of Government would have been able to get as far as Lord Baker, who has used all his political experience to win acceptance for UTCs, gain pound;180 million for their construction and bend the baccalaureate agenda to his will.

However, he also stands accused of wanting to recreate past divisions in education. One recalls a 1999 interview with The Guardian, where he reminisced about his time as education secretary. Then, he had been accused of wanting to break the unions, kill off local education authorities and overturn the comprehensive system.

Long out of office, he admitted as much. "Oh, certainly there was a political edge to the attack on the LEAs. Oh yes, though no one ever admitted it," he said.

In a similar way, he has been explicit about wanting to fulfil the missing link of the tripartite system - the technical schools - though he has had no words of support for the unmourned secondary modern.

The problem for FE is whether to go along with him for the ride. That may end up in a choice between the two-tier system which Professor Alison Wolf warned about; or, arguably worse, a three-tier system.

What colleges will certainly not want is for their brand of vocational education to become perceived as the bottom tier, the return of the secondary modern, if the TechBac becomes established. Accordingly, some have hedged their bets by sponsoring UTCs.

But it should not be assumed that the triumph of UTCs is inevitable as the Bakerisation of education was in the 1980s.

Lord Baker was indeed effective as the scourge of unions and local authorities. But he was also the architect of City Technology Colleges, whose progress stalled at 15 schools, and which were largely a sideshow until Labour took up the baton with academies.

CTCs failed partly because local authorities could not be persuaded to give up the sites: 15 were not enough to make an impact. It is doubtful that funding 24 UTCs will be much different: for a certificate like the proposed TechBac to gain credibility with employers, it will need to be a near-universal offer.

Without colleges' involvement, that would be impossible, so they should be given some chance to shape the development of the certificate. Otherwise, many businesses will remain blissfully unaware of the existence or purpose of the TechBac, and UTCs will become merely pound;180 million of lip service.

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