By Tim Montgomerie
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One of the great challenges of our time – in all more mature economies – is to improve the wage-earning potential of the working population. Britain has some of the best schools and universities in the world but if we are to succeed in ensuring every child and future worker has skills with which they can earn a good living we need to ensure more balance in our educational system. We need to address the huge mistake that was made in 1945 when – partly through academic snobbery – Britain rejected the path that Germany took and we failed to invest in high quality technical schooling.
This Coalition is already serious about vocational education. Only today, our Deep End Editor blogged about the success of the Government's investment in apprenticeships. Finally, our education system is refocusing on providing young Britons with skills that will actually be useful for them.
Few people are more in tune with this need to rebalance our education system than former Tory Education Secretary Lord Baker of Dorking. Ken Baker could have left politics and gone on to do something more financially lucrative but he's stuck at the great mission that he launched when he was a member of Margaret Thatcher's government – the drive to deliver technical education to children who, without it, may struggle in the jobs market.
Lord Baker's vehicle for this technical revolution is the University Technical College. The UTCs have four key qualities, which Lord Baker set out in an article for The Times (£):
- They aim to provide high quality technical education involving 40% practical application and a balanced study of subjects that include maths, science, English and a modern foreign language;
- The practical and academic components of the UTC curriculum are developed through active co-operation with local employers and universities – who lead master classes in engineering or the digital industries (or whatever local employers are focused upon) and also access to university facilities;
- They serve children aged from 14 to 19 on the basis that "11 is too young and 16 is too old to specialise";
- They stretch students by making them work a longer day than the average school or college – from 8.30am to 5.30pm – and through five eight-week terms – meaning children study for a 40 week rather than 38 week year.
Lord Baker's ambition in 2010 was to see 100 UTCs operate across the UK. By 2012 (£) he had doubled his goal – to 200! Five are already operating and thirty-three more have been approved by Michael Gove. The early results are encouraging. Last August he wrote (£) about the GCSE results achieved by the Staffordshire UTC, supported by JCB, and established under the last Labour Government:
"The students selected themselves, so there is a wide range of ability. In 2010 only 57 per cent were thought likely to get A-C grades at GCSE in English and maths in 2012. In the tests before Christmas they hit a brilliant performance rate of 73 per cent; and on Monday it was announced that in the Level II functional skills tests, such as how to write a business letter, students achieved 97 per cent in English and 91 per cent in maths. So Jim Wade, the Principal, hopes for outstanding maths and English GCSE results tomorrow. Few if any schools could have added that value to the students who came through their doors two years ago."
These schools seem to be reaching children that the current educational mix is missing. They conform with a worldwide trend to encourage specialisation at 14. They also begin to address Peter Luff MP's ambition for Britain to produce many more engineers. We'll keep ConHome readers up-to-date with Lord Baker's important work.
> Previously in this Conservatism for the Little Guy series: Robert Halfon MP and a champion of tax cuts for the poor; Nick Boles MP and affordable housing; and Laura Sandys MP and a pro-consumer conservatism.