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Take care to avoid the TechBac bear traps

When creating alternatives to an academic education, tread carefully, warns Tony Blair's former adviser Matthew Taylor

When creating alternatives to an academic education, tread carefully, warns Tony Blair's former adviser Matthew Taylor

The commitment made earlier this month by Ed Miliband, and fleshed out by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg, to establish a Technical Baccalaureate (TechBac) is very welcome. But even as the policy was unveiled there were signs of Labour falling into some of the predictable bear traps that lie in wait for advocates of better vocational provision.

Both the electoral focus on Middle England and the fact that the education debate is framed by politicians and journalists, nearly all of whom went to university and aspire for their children to follow the same route, has tended to mean that policy controversy has centred on the anxieties of middle-class parents. It is much better that we explore a new system of vocational learning than rehash arguments about grammar schools or whether assertive parents always get their first choice of school. Also, there is no denying the current policy vacuum when it comes to the engagement and prospects of those who are unlikely to achieve the English Baccalaureate.

But even framing the question this way - as Miliband did with his talk about the forgotten 50 per cent - risks falling into trap one: conflating very different definitions of the problem. On the one hand, there is the general problem about the status of much vocational and technical education. In these terms the TechBac is an attempt to achieve a parity of status and quality between academic and technical education, which is often said to be a strength of the German secondary system. On the other hand, presenting the TechBac as the answer for the "bottom 50 per cent" reinforces the idea that technical education is for those who are not able to make the grade academically. This same conceptual fault line can be found in the different rationales offered for the establishment of University Technical Colleges.

The education team at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) were among those who Stephen Twigg consulted ahead of the new policy announcement. We were able to talk about the encouraging progress of the International Baccalaureate Career-Related Certificate (IBCC), which is being piloted at the RSA Academy in Tipton. But the IBCC, which is gaining fans both in the UK and globally, is far from a traditional vocational curriculum.

Aimed at Years 12 and 13, it combines two subjects drawn from its more academic parent - the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma - career-related learning (a BTEC diploma or an apprenticeship) and elements that focus on broader capabilities and development, including an emphasis on ethics. IBCC students are also required to learn a modern foreign language, with several RSA Academy students choosing to start Mandarin from scratch. As this demanding mix implies, and in contrast to the Miliband message, many of those on the IBCC have every intention of using their qualifications as a route into university.

There is no hierarchy

Significantly, the IBCC avoids the second bear trap: the implication that the academic and technicalvocational can be neatly separated - in terms either of content or young people's aspirations and aptitudes. Indeed, at the RSA Academy, the post-16 cohort divides reasonably equally between three routes: the IB, the IBCC and BTECs.

However, there are dangers in any process that divides young people into different educational funnels and after the autumn term the academy carefully assesses whether students seem to have made the right choice. There is much to be said for a tripartite approach to 14-19 education, particularly in the context of the rise in the statutory education participation age to 18. In the eyes of students at the academy, there is no hierarchy between academic and vocational pathways - they view it as the making the right choice for their chosen pathway of higher education or high-level employment.

This is the way to square the circle of the two objectives of higher status for technical education and better opportunities for the less academic. Parity of esteem between IB and IBCC achieves the first while a much richer work experience and work offer will mean the more purely vocational route is one that young people will view as relevant and a genuine path to employment. And the existence of three high-quality routes post-16 - instead of the old academic elite versus the warehoused rest - will also make it easier for young people to change their trajectories as they make new choices or discover new enthusiasms and aptitudes.

It won't be lost on anyone with any kind of memory but this debate is in many ways a rerun of the sorry story stretching from the Tomlinson report to the virtual abolition of post-14 diplomas. Political reality dictates that Labour won't want to be seen to be resurrecting a policy that is deemed - however unfairly - to have failed (even though diplomas are struggling on in some places), but it is vital that policymakers learn from past initiatives in what is arguably the single biggest and most consistent area of failure in domestic public policy.

Miliband has opened the right debate and it is encouraging that the coalition's response is to compete for the same territory. Perhaps now that the issue of decent alternatives to an academic education has become politically salient we will at last muster the will to get the policy and, crucially, the delivery right.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA and a former adviser to Tony Blair.

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