Prince Andrew: ‘We must give young people confidence in the workplace’

The inaugural Duke of York Awards for Technical Education are held today. Prince Andrew tells Richard Garner why he decided to back the scheme

For decades employers have complained of the snobbish attitude adopted by politicians and academics to vocational and technical qualifications. Attempts to encourage children to choose between the two options at 14 – as has happened in Germany for years – have largely resulted in a traditional academic education being seen as the gold standard, and those who choose the other path are left picking up the crumbs from the table in terms of funding and opportunities.

This Monday, with the first Duke of York Awards for Technical Education being handed out at Buckingham Palace, an attempt is being made to redress the balance.

The ceremony will recognise the efforts of 160 pupils taking vocational qualifications in the UK’s first two newly established university technical colleges for 14 to 18-year-olds: the Black Country UTC in Walsall and the JCB Academy in Rocester, Staffordshire.

While the first recipients will only be those enrolled at these UTCs – the idea of former Education Secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker, whose Baker Dearing Education Trust has pioneered the initiative – Prince Andrew said he would like to see pupils in mainstream schools qualifying for them in future.

“I’m platform agnostic,” he said. “So long as they fulfil their potential they will get the awards – it doesn’t make any difference where they come from.”

Speaking to The Independent in his office at Buckingham Palace, Prince Andrew said he was supporting the scheme because he believed young people often failed to receive the recognition they deserved if they opted for a technical education – even though employers were now crying out for more recruits with the skills that this route provided.

The scheme will work in the same way as the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, offering gold, silver and bronze awards for individuals depending on the progress they have made. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Prince Andrew said.

Members of the Royal Family must receive many requests to lend their weight to promoting various events or initiatives, but the Duke’s interest in technical education has been sustained over years.

He said that he first conceived of the idea of promoting a technical education initiative as a result of his time in the Royal Navy – when it was impressed upon him that it might be difficult for the service to fill all the places vacated by engineers on their retirement.

“Is the purpose of education to deliver young people for work, as well as a fundamental education?” he wondered. “Often, employability skills in their widest range have not been included in what people have learned.

“It’s a battle for resources in the education system. What we’ve got to do is try to give young people not only that fundamental education, but the ability to be able to go into the workplace with greater confidence than they would previously contemplate.”

He added that he felt priority in education “has been moving elsewhere” and that one of the reasons for this was that technical education could be “a bit more expensive” to provide.

His comments were carefully constructed so as not to be a dig at Education Secretary Michael Gove’s preference for ensuring every pupil has access to a traditional academic curriculum. However, his initiative is a forceful statement of his belief that a child should be just as proud of technical skills.

Organisers of today’s event hope that the setting will help make the awards, and therefore a vocational education, more sought after. It is something to which a pupil pursuing only an academic GCSE or A-level cannot aspire.

The scheme should also encourage wider support from parents and businesses. Criteria for attaining the awards includes the completion of work-experience placements and the development of competencies for the workplace such as communication skills, problem solving and taking responsibility.

Bronze and silver awards are based on achievements at GCSE or equivalent level qualifications, while gold awards are reserved for A-levels or their equivalent.

The Duke of York said that many young people who opted for technical study could move into an apprenticeship – and also use it at a later date to apply to university or to develop managerial skills.

Lord Baker said the awards were “a genuine badge of excellence”. He added that the certificates will even feature a code which employers can scan to verify the qualifications. “Awards will only ever be made to students who follow a rigorous technical curriculum, supported by real-world projects, challenges and work experience with leading employers,” he said.