Plumbers, carpenters – and second-class citizens?

Teachers warn that technical colleges will create two-tier education system
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The opening of a new type of technical school for 14 to 19-year-olds will bring about a return to selection, a leading teachers' union said yesterday.

The proposed network of university technical colleges in inner cities would lead to a two-tier education system, and force children to choose prematurely what they wanted to do, according to delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Liverpool.

The colleges are the brainchild of Lord Baker (Kenneth Baker), the former Conservative secretary of state for education, who has set up a trust to promote them. They would be sponsored, in the main, by universities and would offer vocational courses in subjects such as engineering and manufacturing, and apprenticeships for jobs in the construction industry and plumbing. The Schools Secretary Ed Balls has approved the first such college – the Aston University Engineering Academy – to be opened in 2012. Six others are in the pipeline. There would be a major expansion if the Conservatives won the general election, with David Cameron committed to setting up at least 12 in inner-city areas.

But Baljeet Ghale, a former president of the NUT, told delegates yesterday: "We must mount a vigorous campaign against any attempt to introduce selection of pupils at 14. How can pupils be expected to know what they want to do at the age of 14?" She said schools would encourage pupils not expected to get five GCSEs above grade C to transfer to technical schools at 14, thereby ensuring a better position for the schools in exam league tables.

John Bangs, the union's assistant secretary, added: "There is a real fear about moves towards selection by division, selection by direction and selection by assumption with these routes being mapped out for these kids for ever more."

Claire Mills, a teacher from Leicestershire, added the new colleges would go back to a system where "the practical people are separated from the clever people", adding: "We all know this outdated system which historically keeps working-class people in vocational manual jobs and the middle classes in professional jobs is wrong."

The Aston University Engineering Academy, which will be a 600-pupil college for 16 to 19-year-olds and cost £18m to set up, insists there will be no selection of pupils. It will offer the Government's new diploma in engineering and apprenticeships in a range of trades. A more general briefing note by the Department for Children, Schools and Families says the colleges would also offer GCSEs in maths, English, science and IT.

Technical schools were first mooted in the 1944 Education Act, which introduced universal state education for all up to the age of 14, alongside grammar and secondary modern schools. However, only a handful were ever set up and most closed in the 1950s.

Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, said: "For generations, Britain has failed to provide high-quality vocational education to match other nations like Germany or Singapore. A Conservative government would set up prestigious new schools offering a high-quality technical education to any child who wanted it.

"They would not be selective but they would offer high-quality academic and vocational qualifications for students preparing for the world of work."