For years, words ‘skills’ and ‘crisis’ have been joined in British political discourse. It’s a problem that no one seems able to crack and on May 2nd, The Spectator is holding a conference to get to the bottom of it. Labour excelled at explaining the problem. When Gordon Brown went through his phase of ennobling bankers and asking them to decide government policy, he asked Lloyds’ Sandy Leitch to conduct the Skills Review which found that Britain does well at educating its elite, but not well with others. Germany, by contrast, has 60pc of youngsters in upper secondary education in vocational training. Half of all German pupils in vocational training spend more time in the workplace – studying for apprenticeships – than they do in the classroom, meaning that when they graduate, they are the perfect package for employers.
So what’s Britain’s problem? Why can’t we emulate Germany’s prowess when it comes to teaching pupils ‘skills’? Two peers have some thoughts: Kenneth Baker, who started school reform off under the Tory government and Andrew Adonis, architect of the Academies Programme. Lord Adonis says in his excellent book Education, Education, Education that Britain went wrong during the calamity of comprehensive education. Many ‘secondary moderns,’ he said, warehoused rather than educated children – whereas Germany treated vocational skills properly. In his conclusions he calls for a Technical Baccalaureate; a development the Conservative-led government announced today.
Lord Baker, who started the school reform with his City Technology Colleges in 1986, is back in the fray now with a new book: 14-18 – A New Vision for Secondary Education.The education system, he says, is currently too focused on preparing pupils to pass exams. But he sees an opportunity in the change in laws, which will ensure that every British student must remain in either full-time education or training until the age of 18, rather than letting 17pc drop out as happens now. The only way to do this, he says, will be to change our system and introduce more vocational skills that young people regard as worthwhile.
Will it work? Part of Lord Baker’s plan includes engaging local employers in the curriculum and encouraging them to get involved with the teaching process – whether this be by discussing careers or by offering a more hands-on learning experience. In addition, his idea of measuring educational achievement not by exam results but by the proportion of pupils who gain employment after graduating sounds promising on the surface – but would he be able to convince the government that this is a sensible way of measuring achievement?
Today’s announcement of a new ‘Technological Baccalaureate’ (suggested in the Wolf Review) is a step in the right direction. It might only have been introduced in a bid to trump Ed Miliband’s plans for his own ‘Tech Bacc’, but as Ronald Reagan once said, it’s amazing what you can achieve in politics if you don’t care who takes the credit.
Lord Baker of Dorking will be explaining all this at The Spectator’s half-day forum: Skilling Britain for the 21st Century, on Thursday 2nd May. Tickets are still available: skills.spectator.co.uk.