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Skills not schools: Lord Baker unveils UTC's new deal for teenage learning

Lord Baker’s emphasis on practical skills could transform secondary sector

Plans for pioneering “career colleges” for 14- to 19-year-olds will be approved today. The colleges will offer vocational training in a range of subjects including digital technology, construction, catering and healthcare.

The radical new breed of colleges – the brainchild of Lord Baker, a former Conservative Education Secretary – will build on his network of highly successful university technical colleges which  specialise in the so-called Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Writing in today’s Independent, Lord Baker says: “By starting at 14, youngsters have a head start in preparing for the world of work as they do in Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, where youth unemployment is much lower.”

He added: “We have one million young people unemployed and we are issuing visas to people from overseas who have the skills that are needed – it is about time that we filled the skills gap with our own young people.”

The plans will be announced by Lord Baker who will call for more vocational colleges to be opened and say that the career colleges “fit the bill”. The first such college is scheduled to open in Oldham, greater Manchester, next year and will focus on giving its students the skills to work in the digital economy. 

One of its partners will be the University of Salford, which specialises in degrees connected to the media, now that the BBC has moved into its neighbourhood.

There are 17 UTCs already operating in Britain, with 27 more in the pipeline and proposals for a further 15 being assessed by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust (set up by Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing, a  senior government adviser on education).

The JCB Academy in Staffordshire, the first to be set up, achieved astonishing success in its GCSEs this year with all of its students gaining five or more A* to C grade passes, including in engineering.

A further four careers colleges are to open as well as the one in Oldham. A college in Purfleet, Essex, will specialise in the creative and cultural industries, another in Oxford will cover “human health” (nursing care for the elderly, residential care and social care in the community) while a college in Bromley, Kent, will focus on food and enterprise careers. Hospitality is the third largest employment sector in south-east London.

There are also plans to set up a career college covering sports science and the management of sporting events.

As well as vocational training, the new-style colleges will also ensure their pupils study English, maths and science at GCSE. The mix in the UTCs at present is 40 per cent vocational and 60 per cent academic study.

The new career colleges will be set up on the sites of existing further education colleges but operate as separate institutions. Lord Baker is anxious to persuade more principals of further education colleges to embrace the idea.

During his time as Education Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, Kenneth Baker was responsible for many of the school reforms that have shaped education today. 

He set up the first sponsored state schools – city technology colleges in the late 1980s – and was responsible for the introduction of the national curriculum and its tests. He also gave headteachers more control over their own budgets.

In recent years Lord Baker has been campaigning to establish the UTCs as a feature in every town and city, and has chaired the Edge Foundation, which aims to improve vocational education options for pupils.

Today’s proposals come at a time when the careers service is under fire for failing to deliver adequate advice to pupils after taking over the responsibility from schools.

A report by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, last month said thousands of teenagers were being denied the careers advice they desperately needed to find a job.

It added that three out of four schools visited by inspectors were not delivering adequate advice.  Inspectors said there was too much focus on pursuing an academic future rather than giving advice about vocational options.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The findings of this report come as no surprise to school and college leaders.”

Graham Stuart, the Conservative MP and chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Education, added: “The transfer of responsibility for careers advice to schools last year was regrettable.”

In contrast, at the JCB Academy last year, not a single student left to become a “Neet” – not in employment, education or training. The latest government figures show there are more than 200,000 16- to 18-year olds who fall into this category.

Lord Baker said: “The over-arching goal for a career college is that every young person when they leave at either 16 or 19 will be in work, training or education.”

And he added: “No wonder that David Cameron said: ‘Let’s have one of these colleges in every single major town.’”

Last night government sources played down the plans. A Whitehall source said: “Lord Baker’s university technical colleges are an unproven concept and there is a long way to go before career colleges are government policy.” A Department for Educational spokesman added: “These are proposals from Ken Baker. It is not a government policy.”

Technical analysis: the rise of UTCs

The University Technical College (UTC) programme began in 2010  with the opening  of the JCB Academy in Staffordshire as an attempt to provide top technical and vocational education opportunities for 14-  to 19-year-olds.

Since then, it  has mushroomed with 17 UTCs now open, with a further 27 in the pipeline and 15 more projects being assessed by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust – which is responsible for spearheading the programme. As its name suggests, it  was set up by Lord Baker, the former Education Secretary, and the late Lord Dearing, a senior government adviser on education for years.

UTCs are sponsored by universities, but also work closely with industry and further-education (FE) colleges. The JCB Academy attracted  the interest of Cambridge University for  its excellence in engineering. The difference between UTCs and today’s “career colleges” is that the former are all housed in new buildings and set up from scratch, whereas the latter are free-standing institutions but linked to existing FE colleges.

Many large companies – such as the engineering firm  Arup, British Airways, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and Sony – are among the sponsors of today’s UTCs.

Those now open include the  Silverstone UTC – which will train the back-up staff needed for Formula One racing – and the Elstree University Technical College, which has links to the nearby television studios and will train the technical-support staff necessary for the world of television, theatre and musical events.