The real apprentices: have they seen a way to a brighter future?

Michael Gove wants more practical 'skills schools'. Richard Garner visits the first of them

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The Independent Online

A pioneering new technical college is offering a lifeline to 14-year-olds bored with the traditional curriculum of a mainstream secondary school.

This is the verdict of a booklet on the academy and its achievements, to be published by the trust set up by the former Education Secretary, Lord (Kenneth) Baker, which claims many of its young pupils could otherwise have been lost to learning.

Last week the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, gave the green light for 13 more of the colleges – including one to be built at Silverstone motor racing circuit in Northamptonshire which will devote itself to teaching engineering skills connected with motor racing.

The JCB Academy in Rocester, Staffordshire, which opened in September 2010, was the first of a network of University Technical Colleges (UTCs) offering a top-class technical education to students aged 14 to 19.

Jim Wade, the principal of the JCB Academy, was keen to point out that it was not intellectually inferior to the fare offered at a mainstream secondary school. "Much of the work we do here is highly intellectually demanding," he said. "Many of our students are aiming for places at Russell Group universities (the group which represents 20 of the country's leading higher education research institutions).

"We've taken in some young people who were on the verge of permanent exclusion at their old schools," he added.

One student, Aaron Moore, 15, admits he was bored at his previous school. "I was getting into a bit of trouble," he said. "This, though, really suited me. I didn't really like the way the lessons were taught in my previous school – they were a bit boring and repetitive."

At present, there are only 340 pupils at the academy but the numbers will build up to 600 over the next two years.

The academy is built on the Labour model, with the Bamford family's JCB engineering company providing 10 per cent of the start-up costs (£2m). The UTC's have won over the Coalition Government to their cause – even though they score zero on Education Secretary Michael Gove's latest measure, the English Baccalaureate. The curriculum, with its accent on technical expertise, is not designed for students who want that – although all students will sit their maths and English GCSEs and study science. JCB is also in danger of falling foul of the cuts in public spending. Under an agreement with the previous government, travel to and from the school is paid for out of public funds. That will disappear in two years, with no prospect of cash-strapped local councils being able to bail the academy out.

Technical details

UTCs try another way

The JCB Academy is the first of a new breed of University Technical Colleges that will offer a range of highly specialised technical options for young people aged 14-19.

The approach was pioneered by Sir Anthony Bamford, the chairman of JCB, who won the support of then Schools Minister, Andrew Adonis.

A second UTC, at Walsall in the West Midlands, opened its doors to pupils in September. Lord Baker and Lord Dearing backed the project and set about lobbying for a regional network of UTCs. Three new academies are in the pipeline – and 13 more have the green light.

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