Tories bring back Baker to start new tech colleges

Thatcher's old Education Secretary heralds wave of German-style reforms
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The Independent Online

Kenneth Baker, the former Conservative Education Secretary, is poised for a return to the limelight by masterminding plans to open up to 100 new-style technical schools. Lord Baker, now 75, wants them to provide a ground-breaking education system for pupils aged 14 to 18, based on the lines of the Realschule system in Germany.

He has persuaded both party leader David Cameron and Schools spokesman Michael Gove to back the idea and pledge funding for the first 12. But he is optimistic that the number will grow to about 100 – covering most towns and cities – within five years. They will specialise in technical skills such as engineering or construction, with pupils able to take some GCSEs alongside their vocational studies.

Lord Baker has already got about a dozen universities to support the schools, to be called university technical colleges. One of the most advanced projects is in Birmingham where Aston University will back an academy for 600 pupils, specialising in teaching engineering and manufacturing skills alongside more traditional studies.

The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, has also expressed an interest in the plan, and the Government is expected to announce the go-ahead for another of the schools, in Walsall, soon.

Lord Baker has set up an education trust to mastermind the project. He is in line to take on a similar role to that played by the senior government adviser Sir Cyril Taylor in promoting specialist schools and academies.

Lord Baker said: "Governments need someone outside of ministers to oversee something like this. Ministers get bogged down with so many other issues they cannot devote enough time to a single project."

Two other schools are also nearing fruition. They will be run by the private sector although state-funded. One is to be run by Neil Bates, who has already established Prospects College in Southend, Essex, providing vocational training. The other, in Staffordshire, is to be run by JCB. It will open next autumn specialising in engineering and business.

Universities anxious to get on board include Bradford, Greenwich, Luton, Hertfordshire and Salford. "The great thing is there is no opposition to this," said Lord Baker. "It has all-party support. We have support [from the Conservatives] for 12 but I would like to see 100 up and running in four to five years. There will be tremendous pressure for them from parents."

Lord Baker acknowledges they will provide a similar education to the German Realschule, but insists the idea originated in the UK. It was part of the historic 1944 Education Act introduced by Lord (Rab) Butler which brought in universal free education up to the age of 14 for the first time. The Act envisaged three types of schools: grammar, technical and secondary modern. Although a few technical schools were opened, the concept was dropped, but the Germans took it on board in developing their own education system.

The trust has won support from influential people within the world of education, including Lord Puttnam, the film director, who created the annual Teaching Awards. Trustees include Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, and Ruth Silva, former head of Lewisham College.

Lord Baker was Education Secretary in Margaret Thatcher's second administration, responsible for setting up Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and introducing the national curriculum

Remember them? Return of Thatcher's ministers

Lord Baker is not the only Tory grandee from the past who might return to prominence if the Conservatives win the next election. Earlier this year, the party leader David Cameron named several former ministers from the Major and Thatcher eras, saying they had "every chance" of serving in a future Tory government.

John Gummer has recently worked on a study group with Zac Goldsmith devising a blueprint for a "green" economy. He is often remembered for feeding his daughter a hamburger in the middle of the "mad cow disease" scare,

Stephen Dorrell, a former health secretary, is also tipped for a comeback. He has been chairman of Wensum clothing company who went into administration in July.

Peter Lilley, who was in charge of social security under the Tories, has impressed Mr Cameron by compiling a 500-page report on global poverty.

Sir George Young, who was one of a smaller band of old Etonians in the previous Conservative government, was recently brought back as shadow Leader of the House of Commons as a result of a reshuffle.

Of course, the biggest Tory "beast" from the past who has already won a post in the Shadow Cabinet is Kenneth Clarke, now shadowing Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

Mr Cameron indicated that it would be necessary to rely on the expertise of a few former cabinet ministers during the first few months of any new administration to help advise less experienced ministers.