Technical future can turn teenage tide

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Lord Baker, former education secretary, sets out his vision for a new breed of 14-19 schools

It was just two years ago when I rang Ron Dearing and said, "Let's have a chat about education and what's going wrong." The result was that we both agreed the one thing missing from the English education system was good technical schools.

Ron always quoted from an article that appeared in The Financial Times in 1990, which had made that very point, but we both knew that all attempts since 1940 to produce good technical schools for pupils below the age of 16 had failed.

Back in 1941 the Board of Education had encouraged local authorities to establish secondary technical school and more than 170 were opened. They became unpopular as they were thought to give a second-class education leading only to "dirty" jobs involving greasy rags. Everybody in the 1950s wanted to attend the school on the hill and so technical schools were closed - a huge mistake, but not one that Germany made.

Ron and I decided to promote the idea of a new technical school, but with two important differences. First, recruitment should be from the age of 14 and continue until the age of 19. Second, each should be sponsored by a university or FE college to secure their proper status. We took our idea for university technical colleges (UTCs) to Andrew Adonis, then a minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and he warmly welcomed it, suggesting that they should be established under the existing academies programme. This was the "go-ahead".

The first university that Ron and I visited was Aston University in Birmingham, where the vice-chancellor Julia King and her pro vice-chancellor Alison Halstead, both professors of engineering, jumped at the opportunity to sponsor a 14-19 college in Birmingham. Why? Because they want to engage with young people long before they apply to universities at 17 or 18 - they want to capture the interest of youngsters at a much earlier age and lead some of them to foundation degrees or higher degrees. A good start.

We then spoke to the leader of Birmingham City Council, Mike Whitby, who immediately said "yes". This was very important as UTCs need the commitment of their local authorities for two reasons: first, arrangements have to be made for the 11- to 14-year-olds who would attend a normal comprehensive school, and second, UTCs will have an impact upon local schools that could lose some students. Birmingham was prepared to take up the challenge.

The Aston University Engineering Academy was approved in December 2008. The whole process of planning is well in hand and it will open in 2012. But we must find a quicker and simpler way of building our schools - it shouldn't take four years to build just one.

Ron and I wanted the second UTC to be in the Black Country and we approached Wolverhampton University and the local FE college in Walsall headed by Amarjit Basi. He knew of a school scheduled for closure and recommended it should be converted into a UTC. The Government has approved the application and the Black Country UTC is now being planned.

Sadly, Ron Dearing passed away in February 2009 and personally I miss him a great deal - a kind and good man who is a great loss to many. We had set up the Baker-Dearing Educational Trust to promote UTCs and I am delighted to have been joined by Sir Mike Tomlinson, Frank Field MP, Dame Ruth Silver, Lord Puttnam and Allan Cook as trustees.

I secured the support of Lord Mandelson, who has departmental responsibility for further education. He likes the idea of UTCs and in a statement to the House of Lords has committed the Government to expanding the programme. Michael Gove, shadow education secretary, and David Cameron have both strongly and explicitly supported UTCs, announcing they would plan at the start for at least 12 as soon as possible.

Currently there are more than 15 UTCs in the early stages of preparation and planning. I have been astonished at the speed and enthusiasm of the various parts of the education system - universities, FE colleges and local authorities - which have all recognised that UTCs will provide first-class education and training for young people who, at the age of 14, will decide themselves what technical training they would like alongside maths, science, English and ICT GCSEs.

We all know that a lot can go wrong educationally between the ages of 12 and 14 - many youngsters feel their local comprehensives are not providing the practical training that would lead to job opportunities. Some "bunk off" and hang around the streets, but we believe UTCs can engage their enthusiasm, commitment and support for continuing education and training up to the age of 19 and beyond.

There will be two streams of entry - young apprentices and students taking the new Diplomas. We have found it useful for each of the UTCs to focus upon two Diplomas - in Birmingham on engineering and ICT, and in Walsall on engineering and the building trades. Another UTC is planning to offer medical and sport science Diplomas. Each sponsoring university or FE college focuses on its own expertise. On the first day at a UTC, a student in the building trades will have a trowel in their hand in the morning and study in a classroom in the afternoon.

A network of UTCs will provide the engineers, technicians, future managers and skilled workers that Britain so desperately needs. Whichever party wins the coming general election, UTCs will go ahead, ensuring that our 14- to 19-year-olds have the opportunity to take a highly regarded, technically orientated course of study at a specialist college, equipped to the highest standards and under one roof, and which offers clear progression routes into higher education or further learning in work.

Lord Baker of Dorking, Former education secretary.

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