Attempts to correct this imbalance have repeatedly failed, most recently under New Labour which, after Tony Blair rejected an official committee’s recommendation [pdf] that the 14-19 curriculum and examinations should be reconstructed, introduced vocational diplomas no one wanted to take. Academic learning has acquired even higher status since the introduction of the English baccalaureate, with its exclusively academic diet. Over the past five years, entries for design and technology have fallen by nearly 20% at GCSE and nearly 30% at A-level.
Now ministers are about to get it wrong again. According to leaks, a forthcoming white paper on skills will propose that, at 16, pupils choose between an academic route to university and a “technical professional” route to work. The technical route would have 15 options based on the needs of different sectors of industry and commerce.
But 16 is too late and the proposed divide between academic and vocational too crude. The need is to create, for pupils from 14 onwards, a technical stream – the word “vocational”, now irrevocably associated with low status, should be banished – based on making, doing, designing and problem solving. The pupils in that stream should collaborate on projects that connect directly with the world of work.
Since many will work in the “gig economy”, taking on short-term projects for a variety of employers, they should learn how to manage their personal finances and market their skills. Their route to university should be as visible as that of their academic peers.
The nearest approach to this ideal are the 39 university technical colleges (UTCs) for 14- to 19-year-olds. They were devised in the late 2000s by the former Tory education secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker and the late Ron Dearing, a former Post Office chairman. Each UTC is sponsored by a university as well as by employers, who provide work experience and relevant projects. Students wear business suits, not conventional school uniform. They attend nine hours a day, 40 weeks a year. According to Baker, UTCs provide employers with the workers they say they need but rarely get: flexible, imaginative, articulate, reliable, capable of working with others and of responding to customers’ requests.
Baker’s stroke of genius was to involve universities, which had never previously taken much interest in technical or vocational education. He thus banished instantly any suggestion that the non-selective UTCs are low-status options for academic laggards.
Labour accepted UTCs and financed them on the same basis as academies. But they get no special favours, and not much love, from Tory ministers. Some struggle to recruit because schools, to maximise funding, hold fiercely on to their pupils. Like school sixth forms, UTCs receive between £500 and £1,200 less a year for each 16-plus pupil than for other pupils. Unlike school sixth forms, they have little scope for cross-subsidy from younger pupils, even though technical education requires expensive equipment and maintenance. Cuts in school transport make it hard for some students to attend the colleges.
Baker argues that the UTCs are not just repairing a longstanding weakness in English education but also equipping young people to cope with a digital revolution that, according to the Bank of England, threatens 15m UK jobs.
In a new pamphlet from the Edge Foundation [pdf], Baker says computers will increasingly perform routine jobs, including some previously the province of lawyers, bankers, doctors, accountants and other professionals. They may even take on many jobs that require high-level reasoning. They will not excel, however, for the foreseeable future, in non-routine tasks that require, as Baker puts it, “imagination, the application of knowledge to novel or varied contexts, and the ability to make judgments”.
This applies to non-routine physical as well as mental tasks. No one has yet developed a robot that combines the perception and motor skills of the average five-year-old.
A forward-looking government would put its full weight behind UTCs and similar attempts to create high-status technical pathways for 14-year-olds. Alas, this government, repeating past mistakes and blind to future economic needs, prefers to impose a rigid academic curriculum that fails (and bores) roughly half our young people.