Kenneth Baker: 'Open your eyes, Gove - this is what pupils should learn'

Transfer children at 14, ditch exams at 16 and train a generation that can make things. Today, the former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker publishes his radical vision for the future.

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The Independent Online

The English education system is about to experience a revolution caused by the raising of the school leaving/participation rate to age 17 this year and to 18 in 2015. It has been a long journey from a leaving age of 10 years in 1880, 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899, 14 in 1921, 15 in 1947, and 16 in 1972. Each change meant organising and creating new schools.

So education and training from now will be a continual process from age five to 18. This gives us a chance to rethink education between the ages of 14 and 18. I believe the correct age of transfer to full secondary education should be 14 and not 11. Eleven is too young and 16 is too old. This nearly happened in 1941 when the committee planning post-war education recommended selective grammar schools, selective technical schools and secondary moderns, and the transfer age to be age 13-14. This decision never went to ministers: the Permanent Secretary simply decided it was not possible, as "grammar schools start at 11". Then, there were 1,600 grammar schools: now, there are 169 – so why have the age of 11 now?

A school-leaving examination at 16 is no longer needed – this is a costly and all-consuming examination, which no longer appears as necessary or relevant. What will be needed is a graduation certificate at 18, available to anyone who reaches a specific level in their academic/technical/vocational/artistic/apprenticeship studies, including the broader skills needed for success in further education, work and life.

When I introduced the national curriculum in the 1980s it extended to 16 and now I would stop it at 14. At 14 they should be assessed and, with the help of their parents and teachers, decide what educational pathway they want to follow. I would like to see the emergence of four types of colleges, schools, and academies:

1. Liberal Arts Colleges for academic studies akin to grammar schools;

2. University Technical Colleges (UTCs);

3. Career Colleges for practical, vocational subjects;

4. Sports, Creative and Performing Arts Colleges based on the highly successful Brit School in Croydon.

This will create a coherent array of routes leading to university, apprenticeships and employment.

The success of UTCs points the way: five are already open, 12 will open this year, 15 in 2014, and a further 21 have applied. These are employer-led and university-supported, providing a working day from 8.30am to 5pm for five eight-week terms, which means that over a four-year period the students gain an extra teaching year. From 14 to 16 they spend 40 per cent of the week on practical learning and 60 per cent on the core subjects including maths, English, science and foreign languages. From 16 to 18, the proportions are reversed.

The JCB Academy in Staffordshire has been open for two years. Last summer it had no Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training) – at 16 or 18 every student went into a job, apprenticeship, further education or university. It has also discovered that by melding English and maths into engineering there were significant improvements in these subjects. Two years ago, 50 per cent of the students were forecast to achieve A to C grades in maths – this year, the same cohort of students achieved 88 per cent. Students have enjoyed working in teams and on projects provided by the employers that develop their problem-solving and presentational skills. They have also found that truancy and disruption virtually disappear – the disengaged become engaged.

The active involvement of employers is essential as they provide UTCs with teaching modules and projects in which their staff help with instruction. Rolls-Royce devised courses on piston pumps for one of the eight-week terms and showed students how to design and manufacture them. Network Rail devised courses in level crossings and signalling, and National Grid in gas-pumping stations. More than 450 companies are committed to supporting UTCs and this is the first time in our country that employers are actually shaping the curriculum.

At 16, students can become apprentices. At the Aston Engineering UTC in Birmingham, apprentices spend part of their time in a local company and the remainder alongside other students at the UTC. The head boy at the JCB Academy turned down a place at Loughborough University in order to take a higher apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce, where he will study for a foundation degree and may well go on to a higher degree at a university.

Vice-chancellors and university staff have welcomed the opportunity to engage with youngsters at 14, 15 and 16. They introduce the students to campus life, showing them the richness and variety of their resources, and encouraging many who would not have thought of going to university to apply. At the Aston Engineering UTC students use the university's sports facilities.

Other countries have already recognised that 14 is the critical age. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development draws a distinction between lower and upper secondary and in many countries the dividing line lies at 14. There is a clear relationship between good-quality vocational education and lower levels of youth unemployment. Look at the figures for Austria, which has the lowest level of youth unemployment in Europe.

The US has long had a transfer age of 14, but the latest development in New York is the creation of technical high schools for students aged 14 to 18, two of which I have visited. A failing and police-visited comprehensive was closed on West 44th Street and converted into a food-and-finance technical college teaching catering and accountancy, supported by Cornell University. It is virtually a UTC and heavily oversubscribed. Another specialises in electrical engineering, offering pathways to Ivy League colleges or to work.

UTCs are important agents of social mobility – just as the old grammar schools once were, but which the remaining grammar schools are not. There is no selection and we find some UTCs have 8 per cent of pupils receiving free school meals, and one has 37 per cent; another UTC has 20 per cent with special educational needs. Students with disadvantaged and difficult backgrounds have a real chance to develop their talents and interests to the full. UTCs are one-nation colleges.

Future success depends on taking these lessons and applying them to the whole 14-18 phase of education. We must match schools and the curriculum to the talents and ambitions of young people. In this way, we will provide many, equally valid, paths to success.

Lord Baker was Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989. '14-18 – A New Vision for Secondary Education', by Kenneth Baker (Bloomsbury, £14.99).