Professor Alison Wolf has tried to answer the question that has troubled English education since Victorian times and has never been satisfactorily answered. How can high-quality, technical, practical, hands-on vocational education be provided to young people from the age of 14 alongside academic education?
Research by Professor William Richardson of Exeter University for the Baker Dearing Educational Trust revealed why the many well-intentioned schemes from 1880 onwards to diplomas today failed to produce enough highly qualified technicians capable of finding a job after their studies. Sadly, many attempts over the years succumbed to good old English snobbery: the grammar school on the hill was always better than the school in the town with the workshops.
The Wolf review, which is a mine of useful information and analysis, does not provide a comprehensive answer, but it identifies several very helpful signposts. Professor Wolf is blunt in her estimate that "at least 350,000 students get little or no benefit from the post-16 education system".
The main thrust of her report is that any course of vocational education must have English and maths embedded in it, at least to GCSE-level. She recommends that all students in post-16 courses should have a programme to achieve that goal. This is a major departure from present practice, in which, for example, students on vocational courses in the building trades at FE colleges get little or no remedial English or maths. Others may simply be taking English and maths GCSEs by themselves. It will require a major redesignation of the arrangements of many FE colleges.
Professor Wolf also suggests the possibility of FE colleges enrolling students at 14. This would not be easy, as from 14-16 the students are still at school, which is a very different ethos and environment from post-16 FE colleges. Demanding programmes of general education would be needed for each student, alongside RE, sport and personal development. The environment for 14-16 would be a more disciplined one than for post-16 and there would be considerations for moral welfare.
Professor Wolf would also like to see all students under 16 receive up to 20 per cent vocational education. This already happens at schools that have the special facilities a good vocational education requires, but the vast majority do not. So schools adopt vocational qualifications that can be easily taught in the classroom and these, as Professor Wolf recognises, are often the least valuable. To provide up to 20 per cent high-quality vocational education, schools will require additional workshop space, specialist equipment, maintenance contracts and technical supervision of students operating equipment. Good vocational education does not come cheap and the report does not address the costs of this sort of change.
The most important report commissioned by the last Labour government was by Sir Mike Tomlinson on the 14-19 curriculum, but the government thought A-levels would be threatened and education ministers baulked at a major reorganisation of the school estate to provide 14-19 institutions. As a compromise, ministers created the diploma, which requires young people aged 14-16 to spend a day a week in an FE college, which they enjoy, and four days in their local comprehensive, where the academic subjects they study have no relevance to their practical work.
Over the past four years I have been advocating, together with the late Ron Dearing, university technical colleges (UTCs) for 14 to 19-year-olds. I firmly believe that the training of the hand and the education of the mind is best done under one roof. As these colleges and their students will follow a normal working day - 8:30am to 5:30pm, with 40 teaching weeks each year instead of the normal 38 - a whole teaching year will be gained over the five years. This allows a UTC to offer more than 20 per cent teaching time on technical education, meaning it will be 40 per cent technical pre-16 and 60 per cent academic. Post-16 it would rise to 60 per cent technical and 40 per cent academic.
Local employers will help determine the UTC's specialisms and curriculum that will lead to local jobs. A university will sponsor each college so there is a pathway to foundation and higher degrees. There will also be apprenticeships post-16.
Professor Wolf is right to see apprenticeships as a huge opportunity. Her main point cannot be disputed: learning at work is a brilliant way to develop skills and knowledge for the future, particularly when combined with additional knowledge gained in a college or independent training centre.
UTCs are totally in line with Professor Wolf's vision. I am delighted that she endorsed them in her report. She makes the point, quite rightly, that because UTCs will have a longer teaching day, it will be possible to offer an even richer technical and vocational curriculum while delivering vital skills in English, maths and science.
One UTC has already opened - the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, whose second year is already heavily over-subscribed. Another will open this year, 12 more in 2012, and there can be many, many more - the Baker Dearing Trust is talking to more than 50 groups. It will be up to local children's services and the education system itself to find ways to recognise 14 as the effective age of transfer.
Lord Baker is a former education secretary and chairman of the Edge Foundation and the Baker Dearing Educational Trust.