Britain’s traditionally snobbish attitude to non-academic education and technical careers is a blight on our national character and our economy. For too long, vocational training has been the poor relation – marginalising technically minded youngsters and leaving employers looking abroad for the practical skills that they need. But a quiet revolution has been gathering pace. And today’s launch of the first five “careers colleges” is another much-needed move towards an education system that is fit for purpose.
When the first of the new-style schools opens its doors in Oldham, perhaps as early as next September, its students – aged between 14 and 18 – will spend 60 per cent of their time on the usual academic subjects and the rest learning about digital technologies, with a view to employment in, say, the games industry. The four careers colleges that follow will take a similar approach but each will focus on a different sector such as healthcare or hospitality.
Radical as these institutions are, they are not the vanguard. They are designed to complement the growing network of engineering-focused university technical colleges already in existence – all of which is the brainchild of Lord Baker, the former Conservative cabinet minister whose belief in the need for high-quality vocational education, and committed pursuit of that goal, merit the warmest applause.
Indeed, it is difficult to overstate either the value of Lord Baker’s visionary plans or the extent to which they could transform Britain’s educational landscape. Well-intentioned or not, the creation of the comprehensive secondary and the abolition of the polytechnic left technical qualifications languishing in often under-performing further education colleges, fully a third of which Ofsted recently judged to be not good. Is it any surprise that there is such a dearth of skills?
So far, there are 17 UTCs across the country, with another 27 to come. The results are promising. Take the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, which has close links with the company whose name it bears. Not only did all this year’s GCSE students achieve five or more grades A* to C, and not only were 50 per cent of A-level passes A*, A or B; no less importantly, all those who left in 2012 went on to university, employment or an apprenticeship.
No wonder the Chancellor is such a fan. With the number of young “Neets” – those not in education, employment or training – still stubbornly rising, the prospect of a “wasted generation” is, both politically and economically, one of George Osborne’s most pressing concerns. Nor does an overtly vocational agenda in some schools have to clash with the Education Secretary’s desire for more academic rigour. The two are hardly mutually exclusive, as the JCB Academy results make clear.
The Prime Minister has said we need such colleges “in every single major town”. Absolutely right. Now let’s get on with it.