Bring back the polys and scrap A-levels, says Williams

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The Independent Online

A return of the polytechnics is demanded today by former Education Secretary Shirley Williams.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, she said: “They were never second rate universities..”

“The abolition of the polytechnics is one of the reasons why the manufacturing industry has never held its own (in terms of recruitment) against the City – which takes from the traditional universities,” she added.

Baroness Williams had two spells in the Department of Education – one as a minister in the 1966-70 Wilson administration and a second as Education secretary under Jim Callaghan,.

The idea of setting up the polytechnics emerged during her spell at education during the Wilson administration when Anthony Crosland was education secretary. They were abolished by the Conservatives in 1992.

“Tony wanted to attract some of the new wave of students who would emerge from the comprehensive schools towards more applied, practical higher education,” she says in her book.

“He was very much aware Britain lacked both entrepreneurship and advanced technical skills.”

Baroness Williams is still active in education and now heads the UK judging panel for the annual Teaching Awards – devised by Lord Puttnam and due to be screened on BBC 2 this year on 25 October.

In her interview, Baroness Williams also called for the abolition of A-levels, saying it was an exam past its sell-by date.

She wanted it replaced by a UK version of the baccalaureate which would give equal weight to vocational skills.

“A-level is not relevant to the world we now live in,” she said.

Speaking on the day of the publication of her autobiography. Climbing the Bookshelves, she said the “real tragedy” of the Blair government had been to reject the findings of the Tomlinson inquiry – which called for an overarching diploma embracing both academic and vocational study to replace the existing A-level system.

“That’s one of the characteristics of our present government – to look at a ghastly headline in the Daily Mail or Telegraph and then do something g that they wanted it to do.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair had based his decision of fears of a backlash from parents over newspaper headlines claiming the “gold standard” of the education system was to be scrapped.

The Liberal peer said she wanted the UK to adopt a version of the International Baccalaureate instead - but introduce a broader version of it to embrace vocational study as well.

Baroness Williams is adamant her proudest achievement was introducing comprehensive education.

The percentage of state comprehensive secondary schools went up from 15 per cent to 85 per cent during the 1970’s – largely during her reign and Margaret Thatcher’s at the Department for Education.

In her book, she says: “It was a reform that had, like the 1944 Education Act, broad public support.

“Local education authorities that were adamantly opposed, like Kent, have kept their selective systems right up to the present day. Their results are not great advertisements for the old way, being little better than average overall.” Schools Secretary Ed Balls has just told Kent it must improve its performance.

However, she is worried that the Government’s flagship academies programme is reintroducing selection by stealth and helping to create more of a two-tier system in the state sector.

“In recent years, the government has gone out of its way to encourage the best teachers and headteachers to go into academies,” she said. “It is happening quietly.”

In addition, the new academies – privately sponsored state-financed schools – were receiving around three times as much start-up funding as mainstream state schools.

“If you devoted the same level of resources into good comprehensives, I very much doubt there would be a difference (in performance) between the two,” she said.

“What you do find, though, is – as the academies expand – they take in a more affluent cohort.”