E Jane Dickson: Will plumbing be the new accountancy?

If selection at 14 were rolled out across every social boundary it would make sense. This is not the case. The techs are to be sited in areas of social deprivation
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The Independent Online

What kind of 14-year-old, I wonder, was Michael Gove? I'm guessing the scholarship boy at Aberdeen's exclusive Robert Gordon's College looked and sounded rather as he does now, that is to say an earnest, short-back-and-sides zealot focused on a brilliant career.

The Secretary of State for Education has many times acknowledged the advantage of his own, rigorously selective education and his admirable ambition to bring the benefits of a traditional, classical education within reach of the poorest of society. But he has a funny old way of going about it. First there was the Coalition's new, improved version of the academy system, which, at the flick of a ministerial brief, transformed a scheme originally designed to pull up failing schools to one that creams off schools which are already among the highest performing in the country. Then came the introduction of "free schools", a charter for the sharper-elbowed parent with dubious benefits for society as a whole. And just when you thought there were no more progressive rabbits in the hat, the Government has this week given the go-ahead to plans allowing children to opt out of academic study, at the age of 14, to pursue a vocational education at specially created university technical colleges.

The initiative, the first to implement selection by academic ability in mainstream state schools in England since the abolition of the 11-plus exam in 1965, has gone down like a lead balloon with teachers' unions, and there are those on the left to whom any kind of selective education is a non-negotiable outrage. As a parent of children in state education – my daughter is 15, my son 13 – I think it may be time to boot the ideological football out of play and consider the scheme on its own merits.

Frustrated as I often am by a comprehensive system unimaginatively bent on "teaching to the middle", I cannot share the fashionable nostalgia for the 11-plus. As the beneficiary of a grammar school education, I think I was always aware that while grammar schools were a marvellous vehicle of social mobility for those who got in, the horizons of those who found themselves outside the charmed circle of Latin declensions and mortar boards were commensurately limited. Now that I'm a mother of teenagers I'm even more convinced that 11 is just about the worst possible age to decide on a child's future path in life.

Leaving aside the important issue of girls and boys maturing at different ages and the hormonal meltdown of early adolescence, the idea of judging academic ability (or the ability to perform well in exams, which is not always the same thing) before children have had the chance to try their hand at the full gamut of academic subjects seems to me spectacularly ill-conceived. Nor, I think, do most primary school children have a clear idea of their own aptitudes and ambitions and the necessary relationship between the two. My own boy, at 11, had difficulty deciding on his breakfast cereal. At 14, he will at least have had the opportunity to test his abilities in, say, modern languages or design technology, and to make his life choices accordingly.

So what's not to like about the Education Secretary's latest Big Idea? At 14 there is already de facto selection in comprehensive schools as pupils make their choices for GSCE and, in most schools, an element of streaming is in effect by this stage. (For my money, setting in subjects such as maths could kick in a good deal sooner.) Does it make economic or educational sense to keep a 14-year-old drumming his heels at the back of a geography class until his 16th birthday when he could be learning a trade? Gove doesn't think so. "To help support our economic recovery," he says, "we need to ensure that in future we are able to meet the needs of our labour market."

And there's the rub. Training youngsters for jobs in industry and manufacturing does rather assume there are jobs for them to go to, an assumption which at present is, to say the least, shaky. Great emphasis has been laid on the fact that selection at 14 is no crude "sheep-and-goats" mechanism and that the educational reforms will usher in a new era of parity between industry and academia. Cheers to that.

Social respect for manual and technological workers in this country is long overdue. Only a cynic would suggest that there's a side benefit in terms of future educational performance reviews if the shiny new technological colleges hive off the less academically gifted from the shiny new academies and relieve the pressure on affordable university places.

Like so many of the Coalition's "progressive" initiatives, the devil is in the deployment. If selection at 14, or academies, or the kind of education offered by free schools were rolled out across every social boundary, they would make sense. This is not the case. The flagship technological colleges are to be sited in areas of social deprivation such as Hackney, Walsall, Wigan and Sheffield.

If plumbing is truly the new accountancy, how come the techs aren't springing up in the Home Counties? Will middle-class parents be shouldering each other out of the estate agent queues to bag a home in the catchment area of a technology college? Or will they continue to press, in an institutionally divided system, for the academic "pathway" regardless of their child's aptitudes? I don't believe that native academic abilities – as opposed to standards in education – are linked to affluence. I don't think Michael Gove, in his heart of hearts, believes it either.