Ministers cut loose from Baker's TechBac

18th November 2011 at 00:00
Tory peer turns to Labour instead

Basking in the widespread support for his university technical college (UTC) project, Lord Baker, probably the best known education secretary of the 1980s, announced plans to develop a TechBac a year ago.

Designed to combine the Government's controversial new EBac with high-quality vocational learning, he reasonably expected high-level support. But, unlike the UTCs, the feedback from both civil servants and ministers has been at best lukewarm. The Department for Education has made it clear that, on this scheme at least, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust (BDET) - created to promote the UTC brand - must go it alone.

So, this month the BDET did just that, and has turned to the Labour party. TES can reveal that support has come from the new shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, who backed calls for ministers to get on board. "I want to make the argument for a Technical Baccalaureate," he said. "It cannot be right that where UTCs offer high-value qualifications, enabling educational provision and developing a workforce that meets the needs of a new economy, that such qualifications are not recognised."

The latest proposals being developed, TES has learnt, involve the EBac subjects - English, maths, science, a foreign language and history or geography - plus technical qualifications, which have yet to be finalised. The possibility of including an element of compulsory work experience is also being considered.

According to BDET chief executive Peter Mitchell, the focus on the core EBac subjects with extra requirements means that the TechBac would be inherently "more difficult".

Former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, architect of Labour's Diploma programme, is on board. But lessons from that ill-fated experiment have been learnt (News, TES 11 November).

"One of the reasons Diplomas were not as successful as they should have been is the complexity of awarding bodies; one doing one bit (of a Diploma) and one doing another. We're trying to find something in the TechBac that's high status and would balance the EBac, but not be impossible to run," Mr Mitchell said.

Other support has emerged from exam boards AQA, Edexcel, OCR and City amp; Guilds. Pearson, the commercial owner of Edexcel, said it "supports the idea of a Technical Baccalaureate which would include the study of areas crucial to the economy like engineering and new technologies".

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Mitchell offers a guarded criticism of the EBac. Clearly, he explains, more pupils should be taking the traditional academic subjects than actually were when the Coalition came to power. "But nor can it be right that 100 per cent of children take it. I can see why Mr Gove's done it but, like all things, it can have unintended consequences, and this is perhaps a way of helping it have less unintended consequences."

And the TechBac, he believes, could play a crucial role in the UTCs' goal of "educating the hand and mind under one roof". "One of the top universities was telling me they have a real problem with their engineers because they are all top A-level students ... and actually they don't know one end of a screwdriver from another. That won't happen at UTCs," he said.

Mr Mitchell added that a pilot of the TechBac scheme would be introduced in UTCs across the country.

The UTC vision focuses on producing well-rounded individuals ready for different career paths, rather than, the BDET says, creating mass-produced drones to fill an immediate skills gap. And Lord Baker's idea of a TechBac is designed to mimic this. Whether success will logically follow, however, is not clear.

WOLF'S RESERVATIONS

Professor Alison Wolf (pictured), who carried out a review of vocational education for the Government, has expressed reservations about the TechBac. Addressing the Commons education select committee in April, she argued that, unless it was developed as a "consolation prize" for less academically able teenagers, she could see little point in it. "If it is just as difficult to achieve as the English Baccalaureate then it is not clear to me what its broad function would be," she said.

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