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Leading article: Time for a rethink on technical skills


Given the desperate need for improvement in Britain's technical and engineering skills, Tim Smit's plan for a college to teach school-leavers ultra-modern, low-carbon construction techniques is to be applauded. The Eden Project founder's vision of a blue-collar educational establishment on a par with the white-collar one also has much to recommend it. But why wait until university? Better still to let go of the dogma of comprehensive secondary education. While well-intentioned, in practice it has both entrenched the very social divisions it hoped to ameliorate and left Britain with a dearth of technical skills.

There are signs of progress. By near-doubling the number of so-called "university technical colleges" last week – bringing the proposed total to 34 – the Government has put a rocket under a scheme, started under Labour, that is a radical departure from the notion of one-size-fits-all education.

Participating schools are specifically designed to train technicians and engineers. The curriculum, which starts at age 14, may include traditional subjects such as French and geography, but they are taught with a direct link to their practical application in industry. There are also explicit links to business – one UTC, specialising in aviation technology, is backed by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, for example – improving the calibre and relevance of the teaching, and thereby the prospects for employment.

As it stands, Britain's education system is falling between two stools, too often producing young adults who have neither academic aptitude nor technical grounding. For the bookish but not wealthy, the answer must be a return to the grammar school system, albeit with a more flexible approach to selection than the once-in-a-lifetime 11-plus.

But that is only half of the solution. Grammar schools are only viable if the non-academic alternative is of equal standing and equal potential. There is everything to be gained: in social mobility, in educational standards, in producing the skills the economy needs. The UTCs and Mr Smit's HOW2 college prove it is possible. All we need now is many more of them.