Kenneth Baker's dream celebrated 10 years on...
Last week, the renamed Technology Colleges Trust celebrated 10 years of its often controversial life, during which time the number of schools connected with it has risen to 400. All base their curriculum on technology, maths and science or modern languages.
There are the original 15 city technology colleges: the target of 20 pilot schools was too ambitious. Then there are the 222 specialist schools, 180 specialise in technology and 42 in languages (10, specialising in sport and arts, are expected to be announced shortly). Then there are schools affiliated to the trust which, in return for an annual Pounds 1 per pupil fee, gain access to curriculum materials and support.
The original CTCs were hailed as beacons of excellence free from town-hall bureaucracy, with lavish capital funding from industry and Government, but they unlikely to endear themselves to Labour councils or other schools struggling in inner-city areas. As Kenneth Baker, then education secretary, recalls: "I was attacked by virtually the whole of the educational world - 'unnecessary', 'subversive', 'irrelevant' and 'divisive' were some of the milder criticisms. "
Another former education secretary John Patten broadened the initiative by proposing technology colleges, to be formed from existing grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools. Then Gillian Shephard broadened it further, making all schools, including county schools, open to "specialist school" status and extending it to language colleges.
Thus the Government met many criticisms of the original CTCs and achieved much wider coverage for much less money. Schools wanting to become technology or language colleges have to raise Pounds 100,000 from the private sector, which is then matched by the Department for Education and Employment. They get an annual grant of Pounds 100 per pupil towards running costs.
Support for the initiative has broadened. Sir Cyril Taylor, founder and chairman of the Technology Colleges Trust, says: "With the exception of a few die-hards in Labour LEAs, there is now bi-partisan support."
Both Labour leader Tony Blair and the party's education spokesman, David Blunkett, have congratulated the trust on its tenth anniversary. Mr Blunkett's youngest son attends Yewlands School in Sheffield, which has recently become a technology college.
One reason for the schools' growing political acceptability is that they are not usually selective. "The original CTC sponsors wanted to sponsor comprehensives, not set up disguised grammar schools," says Sir Cyril. City technology colleges, often at least three times over-subscribed, have a complex admissions procedure designed to establish if the children have an aptitude for science and technology. But they also take care to admit children from each ability band.
Results have risen. Last year, 54 per cent of CTC pupils gained five or more A to C GCSEs, against the national average of 44.5 per cent and the 35 per cent in inner-city authorities where the schools are based. At Harris CTC in Croydon, opened in 1990, the proportion getting five or more A-Cs has risen from 12 to 57 per cent.
Sir Cyril is keen to do something for pupils who currently leave school without a higher grade GCSE - nearly a third of all the country's 16-year-olds. He thinks that group of children would be better suited by a Part 1 or Intermediate level general national vocational qualfication.
At the other end of the scale, he is "shocked" by the decline in hard sciences, especially physics, at A-level. Technology is based on physics and applied maths, he says. He hopes the 250,000 pupils in the trust's affiliated schools will be able to reverse that decline. He thinks, however, it would be a mistake to concentrate all 16-plus physics teaching in specialist schools.
So where will the specialist schools scheme stop? At the present rate of 85 new ones a year, the figure could reach one in five secondary schools by 2002.
There is no shortage of schools applying. Last October, 130 schools put in bids and only 40 were accepted. The hurdles the schools must jump - raising sponsorship, producing a three-year development plan with targets - deter those making "a dash for cash".
Industry was slow to back the original CTC initiative but has produced more than Pounds 60m in sponsorship for Technology Schools since 1987. Sir Cyril has just netted a further Pounds 350,000 for an Intra-net making it possible for 60,000 students to be linked to each other via computer and central database.