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Universities to sponsor new 14-19 vocational academies

Ken Baker backs diploma-specialist colleges, but critics fear they will become secondary moderns

A new breed of academies is to be created in a radical shake-up of vocational education and school provision for 14 to 19-year-olds.

Plans are being drawn up for a series of university-sponsored academies that would be solely focused on delivering diplomas and other vocational courses.

Pupils choosing to study work-related qualifications would leave school at 14 and transfer to a "university technical college" to complete their studies, under the plans.

The first project has been earmarked for Birmingham, with Aston University acting as the sponsor of a school specialising in engineering and manufacturing. It is understood that discussions are being held with up to 12 other universities initially.

The scheme aims to make it easier to deliver vocational diplomas because pupils would be taught on one site rather than having to move between different schools and further education colleges.

The idea is the brainchild of Lord Baker, the Conservative former education secretary who introduced the national curriculum and city technology colleges, and the late Lord Dearing, the government adviser who died last month.

"Our secondaries do not have the space, equipment or qualified staff to teach welding, bricklaying and so on," said Lord Baker. "What is needed is a new type of technical school for 14 to 19-year-olds based on vocational skills. Germany has them and they are more popular than their grammar schools."

The plan has government backing. Jim Knight, the schools minister, said the new schools could "become hubs of progressive, modern education that prepare students for the world of work".

But the idea has been strongly criticised by teachers' leaders. John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said the move would create "post-14 secondary modern schools" that would fail to engage pupils.

"I am absolutely against ghettoising pupils in a particular kind of institution," he said. "At 14 they should still be entitled to a broad curriculum." He said that the introduction of another type of academy would "fracture" the system supporting pupils at risk of disengaging from education and training.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the ASCL heads' union, said that creating 14-19 schools looked good on paper, but was the wrong thing to do. "The fact is that 14 is the worst age for pupils to transfer between one institution and another," he said. "If they have developed poor patterns of behaviour, a new institution will find it extremely difficult to change them in the short amount of time available. Schools that already know children have a better chance of turning them around."

Dr Dunford said the diploma programme could only succeed if schools and colleges worked together. "With so much change in education, the last thing we need is more structural upheaval," he added.

The first five diplomas - in engineering, construction, information technology, creative and media, and health - were launched last September. Just 12,000 pupils enrolled, well below the 50,000 target.

The technical colleges, which could also be sponsored by FE colleges, would focus on diplomas and courses requiring specialised equipment, such as engineering, construction and manufacturing.

Each college - expected to cater for 400-600 pupils - would teach the core GCSEs and have strong links to local employers.

In Birmingham, the Aston University Engineering Academy is to open in September 2012.

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