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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti
 

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent