Over 30 years ago, I served as the secretary of state for education. Perhaps best remembered for introducing the national curriculum in 1988 and the first academies, I was also (and continue to be) a huge advocate of hig- quality technical education.
Unfortunately, the country’s once-excellent vocational education system was killed off by snobbery in the 1950s and has never quite recovered. This is despite numerous attempts by a number of governments to reform the system, but other priorities have always taken over.
Now the EBacc curriculum is narrower than ever. Students are trained to pass exams, and schools are cutting vocational subjects in order to put more focus on the areas which will win them a higher position in national league tables.
Yet we are facing a skills crisis. In an increasingly digitised world, traditional job roles are disappearing and employers are starting to need people with a very different set of skills. With Brexit looming, there are many question marks over whether businesses will continue to be able to access cheap, migrant labour – both skilled and unskilled. Where will this leave our economy?
A skills revolution
A revolution is needed to make high-quality technical education a pathway to success just as good as three A levels and university. It is needed now because of the high level of graduate underemployment and unemployment, with many flipping hamburgers or driving for Uber or pizza delivery companies.
Youngsters at 16 and 18 should have those skills that will get them a job in the digital economy. They should have experience of making things with their hands, designing in computer-aided design on computers; they should be able to operate a 3D printer, control a robot or a drone, and be familiar with virtual reality, and have worked in teams engaged in problem-solving – all these skills are not taught in most secondary schools.
Apprenticeships are rewarding and demanding, but the numbers at 16 and 18 fell last year. It is not just brilliant minds we need, we also need intelligent hands. This could lead on to degree apprenticeships where the employer will pay the fees and the students are spared a great debt.
Yet up until the age of 16 we are still focusing on narrow pathways, with all efforts being focused on an exam at the end of the course. I feel strongly that this is the wrong approach and the option to access good technical education and, indeed, careers advice should be available much earlier.
I launched Career Colleges in 2013 with the aim of offering a high-quality pathway for young people, from the age of 14, who are interested in a more practical education. Crucial to the success of this concept was buy-in from employers and, fortunately, we have had a hugely encouraging response.
Businesses and organisations of all sizes across the eight industries in which our Career Colleges operate have not only offered time and support but are also taking the lead and driving each curriculum; Amazon, BT, NHS foundation trusts, Google, the Hilton and Hyatt groups to name but a few. By setting live project briefs, holding masterclasses and offering careers advice, these employers are reassured that the young people coming through will possess not only the necessary technical skills but also understand how business actually works.
Some 18 Career Colleges are now in operation across the country. Many 14-19-year-olds are benefiting from this unique employer-led education, leaving college with real skills, not simply the ability to pass an exam. As a result, our students are successfully progressing on to advanced apprenticeships, higher education and fulfilling employment.
Today I am attending the launch of two new Career Colleges at Havering College. Specialising in construction and engineering, this college has identified skills needs within the region, and planning permission has been granted for an £11 million Construction, Infrastructure, Skills and Innovation Centre. Working in partnership with a number of key employers, including two local councils and Merlin, future students at these Career Colleges will be equipped with the relevant skills to get successful and well-paid jobs, together with developing important industry contacts.
My endeavour to ensure that young people have access to exceptional vocational education continues. Quite simply, getting this right has never been as important for our country and our economy as it is right now.
Lord Baker is founder and trustee of the Career Colleges Trust