Top marks, Kenneth Baker. These technical schools are precisely what the nation needs

His system mixes maths, English and science with vocational training that leads to work
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More than three decades after its release in the dog days of the concept album, Pink Floyd’s only No 1 hit single seems poised for a dramatic reinterpretation. Previously interpreted as a sympathetic take on the stultifying boredom endured by disengaged students, “Another Brick In The Wall” may soon be adopted as the school anthem by the first “career college” to specialise in teaching construction, including the art of laying bricks, to pupils joining it at the age of 14.

The credit for this mildly ironic twist on Roger Waters’ lyrical intent belongs to a man never before regarded as a giant in the field of reappraising prog rock classics. There was a time, in fact, when Kenneth Baker seemed a giant in no field other than oleaginous smugness. In the 1980s, when Spitting Image regularly featured him slithering around as an unctiously grinning slug, few members of the Thatcher cabinet inspired such visceral distaste, though the competition was fierce. When, as Home Secretary, he became the first minister to be held in contempt of court, it felt as though the judge was conveying that contempt on behalf of a grateful nation.

No dark sarcasm in the column, however, when I apologise to him for what now seems a cruel misjudgment. Where so many ministers of his and subsequent generations have invested every ounce of their post-political career energies in making easy money, Baker (while making a few bob from directorships) has devoted himself to improving the prospects of the young.

His Lordship is pioneering a system that mingles a trinity of academic disciplines – maths, English and science – with the sort of vocational training that has the happy knack of leading to paid work. Attacking the scandalous rates of youth unemployment is the noblest of causes (I commend to you the excellent Back To School campaign, newly launched by our sister paper i, to import the public school alumni network to state schools). To this end, in succession to the University Technical Colleges he co-founded with the late Sir Ron Dearing, the first career colleges have been approved to specialise in preparing pupils for jobs in such industries as digital technology, healthcare, hospitality and construction. “There are many paths to success” is the motto on the UTC website, and so say all of us.

As any 14-year-old trainee chef will learn, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It will be years before the career college soufflé rises or falls (though the startling success, in both academic and employment terms, of one UTC is hugely encouraging), while what a leader article yesterday heralded as a “quiet revolution” may become noisier. There will doubtless be counter-revolutionaries who detect in this a whiff of the unlamented secondary moderns into which 11-plus failures were once diverted. There may even be some hysterical squealing about a Brave New World abomination in which the deltas and epsilons are separated from the higher academic forms, at 14, if not as test-tube foetuses, and humiliatingly shunted on to a more menial road.

The modern history of British education has been as riven by snobbery, as that same leader pointed out, as by rigid ideology. Almost half a century after Dick Crossman returned from a dinner with educationalists and furiously snarled at his wife Susan that, if it was the last thing he did, he would close “every fucking grammar school in England”, that sterile debate lingers. It may be as irrelevant as the one about reintroducing capital punishment. The grammar school system has long been moribund, if not technically dead, and deservedly so. While its demise clearly restricted social mobility, the irreversible psychological damage inflicted on those dismissed as no-hopers before they hit puberty, often at random, far outweighed its benefits.

But even if an ideological dispute about career colleges hums irritatingly away in the background like educational Muzak, no one sane or without a vested professional interest in retaining the status quo could discern any hint of social engineering in Lord Baker’s meisterplan. This is one of those incredibly rare ideas that leaps off the page and slaps you so powerfully in the chops as a splendid thing that you wonder why it wasn’t introduced here, as in more progressive parts of Europe, years ago.

On checking my privilege, I find that I am grotesquely unqualified to have any opinion about state education at all. Being the product of a private school myself, and the father of another, commentary would more properly be left to those who have been betrayed, through no fault of their frazzled and often heroic teachers, and rendered unemployable. But given that these victims of a flawed system tend not to have newspaper columns, perhaps the shameful rates of semi-literacy, innumeracy and youth unemployment are commentary enough.

For all the obvious pragmatic appeal of career colleges, on reflection, perhaps there is an ideological element to them after all. The obsession with coercing 16-year-olds robotically to pass a host of exams in subjects of no interest or practical use to them, whether in the form of GCSEs or whatever variant Michael Gove happens to be flirting with this week, is destructive to those with talents beyond the academic. Directly equating intelligence with a knack of pleasing examiners is a reductio ad absurdum which indoctrinates a tragically misplaced sense of inferiority in those whose abilities lie elsewhere. Three of the four cleverest people I ever met have an aggregated four O-levels between them. Most of the stupidest have degrees.

It will be a long time, if it ever happens at all, before Lord Baker’s career colleges begin to reverse the hideous misconception that a brilliant IT technician, builder or carer for the elderly is of less intrinsic value than a solicitor, senior civil servant or, gawd help us, newspaper hack. Yet while reducing the number of “neets” (not in education, employment or training) and the youth unemployment rate is the paramount ambition, even the distant hope of a challenge to the assumption that a plumbing qualification is worth less than a classics degree is cheering.

The hauteur that regards a woodworking qualification, that ancient emblem of academic incompetence, as a paper dunce’s cap is wildly anachronistic. Face it, if Iain Duncan-Smith did well enough at A-levels to be able to claim (albeit falsely) to have gone on to take a degree at an Italian university, the system should have been scrapped then and there. Had career colleges existed in the 1960s, IDS might now be managing a medium-sized hotel – and while the startled guests would be muttering that they’d rather be dealing with Basil Fawlty, we non-residents would be relieved about that.

All in all, then, it’s not another kick in the balls for Kenneth Baker, but a first and resounding hats off. This unlikeliest of embryonic national treasures has acted on the understanding that kids need not only an edukayshun, but one tailored as precisely as possible to their individual talents and the demands of the job market.