A network of "national colleges of excellence" offering teenagers a "gold standard" alternative to university would be created under a Labour government, Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, said yesterday.
Different colleges would focus on single vocational subjects, such as software programming, construction, financial services or catering, and become the national leaders in their field, equivalent to Rada for drama or the Royal Ballet School.
The policy, unveiled by Mr Twigg in an interview with The Independent on Sunday, is in part an admission that the last Labour government focused too much on achieving the target of 50 per cent of youngsters getting places at university. A Labour government would offer credible vocational and practical courses for the "forgotten 50 per cent" for whom university was not appropriate, Mr Twigg said.
The move is part of a wider strategy by senior Labour figures to start setting out more concrete ideas for the next election. In what was seen as the start of a two-year-long election campaign, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls gave speeches last week on the economy and welfare designed to persuade voters that the Labour Party is realistic about economic austerity and is willing to admit the mistakes of the last governments under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. However, the Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor were criticised by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for failing to take full responsibility for the economic crisis.
At his party's conference last year, Mr Miliband announced plans for a technical baccalaureate – or "tech bacc" – to give less academically able pupils a meaningful qualification. Building on the tech bacc, Mr Twigg said the new national colleges of excellence would be created by further education colleges working closely with industry to see where there were gaps in the jobs market for newly trained young people. Mr Twigg questioned why, for example, some fields such as software programming had qualified students from abroad coming to the UK to work, while the national rate of youth unemployment is 20 per cent.
The national colleges of excellence would aim to become internationally recognised institutions like Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities that would be seen as a passport to a successful career, with employers helping to develop world-class training and skills.
Only 32 per cent of 14- to 18-year-olds undertake some form of vocational study, compared with an average of 50 per cent in the rest of the European Union. One in three A-level pupils drop out in their first year, often because they are ill suited to the academic courses, costing the taxpayer £300m a year. However, figures published last week showed that competition for apprenticeships, one of the traditional alternatives to A-levels and university, is intense, with 41 people applying for every plumbing position. On average, 11 applicants are going for each position under the National Apprenticeship Service.
Mr Twigg said he "completely stands by" Labour's 50 per cent university target, but added: "We and other governments haven't had enough of a focus on the other 50 per cent. What we don't have in further education is a sense of the very, very best, the most excellent practice in things, whether it's engineering, construction or catering and hospitality."
With little room for spending, Mr Twigg said the national colleges would be initially created using existing FE institutions that wanted to specialise, but in future, entirely new colleges could be created within the existing education budget. Earlier this year, he visited Switzerland, which has a similar network of technical and practical colleges and where youth unemployment is only 7 per cent.
Westminster Kingsway FE college, which has a strong record on catering, could become the national college of excellence for this field, a sort of "Rada for hospitality".
Mr Twigg said: "The parallel I would draw is with things like Rada and the Royal Ballet School. We should be thinking at that level in terms of the equivalents for the vocational subjects like engineering, construction and catering.
"There are significant skills gaps in software, where people have to be attracted from other parts of the world. Surely we should have the capacity to be creating enough software engineers that are home grown.
"We have got to make sure that the sorts of qualifications that young people are studying for are genuinely aligned with the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow.
"I am passionate about more academically able working-class kids going into top universities – I want that to happen. I think it's not a choice between saying that and saying there are other young people from all sorts of backgrounds for whom university isn't going to be the best option, and we need to be giving them a gold standard as well."
He said Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had a "nostalgic, Victorian view of education" which focused too much on academic subjects and overlooked the need for technical and practical qualifications.
Drive for diversity
Universities should get an extra £1,000 for every student from a disadvantaged background, according to a new report to be unveiled tomorrow. The IPPR, a centre-left think tank, says the pupil premium should be extended and renamed the "student premium" to encourage universities to widen access to poorer young people.
The premium, proposed in a report by the IPPR's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, would cost £460m but could be drawn from existing funding designed to widen participation, which is being "ineffectively spent". As many as 230,000 people could qualify for the student premium. Universities would be expected to use the money to run outreach programmes in schools or provide additional support for students once they arrive at university. The cash would be separate from the existing bursaries offered to some applicants, which go directly to the candidates.
The report calls for "contextual admissions" used by Ivy League universities in the US, where poorer students are offered places on the basis of lower grades to ensure diversity. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Brown all take into account the backgrounds of applicants when making offers. A number of British universities, including Bristol, Exeter and Leeds, run similar schemes.
Last week Dr Les Ebdon, the head of the Office for Fair Access, said "little or no headline progress" had been made in widening access to the top universities.
Nigel Thrift, chairman of the IPPR's Higher Education Commission and vice-chancellor of Warwick University, said: "Universities in Britain should follow the best practice of the US Ivy League in recruiting students to craft diverse and representative intakes. This is to ensure that students are educated not merely for individual advancement but also to be effective and responsible leaders with an understanding of an increasingly diverse society."