Kenneth Baker’s crusade for skills training in schools

The former Conservative education minister and home secretary discusses what University Technical Colleges are doing to fight the UK’s skills gap

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Kenneth Baker, former education minister under Margaret Thatcher, is on a mission to translate “education, education, education” into “employability, employability, employability”. In the last seven years, 45 University Technical Colleges (UTCs), for students from the ages of 14 to 19, have been established across the United Kingdom and five more are set to open in September. These colleges challenge what is arguably a misguided preference for academic over vocational education. Baker is clearly passionate; at the age of 82 he is championing the growth of UTCs, and has thrown himself once again into educational reform. He notes that the UTCs are already oversubscribed and says: “Each UTC specialises in just two technical subjects, like engineering a built environment or computing in a digital economy… and for two days a week… students are making and designing things.”

He reflects on previous governments’ inability to recognise the potential value of technical colleges. “We had 300 technical schools in 1945, but they were closed by snobbery. Everybody wanted to be on the school on the hill, at the grammar school. Their closure was a great mistake.” Baker praises David Cameron and George Osborne for reviving a higher standard of technical school, but admits “this is not a Conservative initiative, it is from all parties”. He points out that Andrew Adonis, the notable Labour, anti-Brexit life peer, approved the reintroduction of technical schools.

Baker recognises the impact of Brexit on the education system, and the need to look again at skills development in the coming year.  He adds: “A House of Commons committee estimated that we are short of 750,000 digital technicians. This is very worrying, particularly with Brexit happening... We've got to train more home-grown talent as quickly as possible.” Pressed as to whether Britain is lagging behind our European competitors, Baker doesn’t pull any punches. “In Europe, in Germany, for example, by the age of 18, 70 per cent of German children will have experienced some form of technical education. In Britain, the figure is 30 per cent. That's what is wrong with our education system.”

UTCs were developed in response to the skills gap. To develop sustainable economic growth, Baker believes that technical skills training needs to be improved at an earlier stage.  His aim is to “train the youngsters of today to get them skills that can get them jobs tomorrow. That's why I think it should start at 14 not 16, which is what the government's policy is.” Baker is critical of policy resistance to such efforts; the education reforms being “imposed” on schools, like the e-Bacc, provide only a “very narrow academic curriculum”. He laments: “It’s been a hard, hard, hard go because the whole education system is against it.”

It seems almost impossible for him to succeed, when “technical and creative education is being squeezed out of schools below 16”. Baker points out “the whole education system is driven by one ambition, or most schools are driven by one ambition: three A-Levels and a university. But that has led to a lot of graduate unemployment.” The strategy of UTCs appears to be successful in countering this trend; of the 1,292 year 13 students who graduated in 2016, from 25 different UTCs, only five were not in education, employment or training. That makes the UTC graduate unemployment rate just 0.5 per cent – a significant improvement on the national average the same year of 11.8 per cent of 18-year-olds. And, Baker adds: “When you talk about graduate employment, you might say that quite a few graduates are still flipping hamburgers and acting as Uber drivers.”

He does not underestimate the challenge faced by future governments when confronting the digital revolution. “A lot has to be done, basically. And the government is halfway there but it's got to go much, much further. We are not educating enough computer scientists, because schools in Britain don't do coding. First, I would make computer science a compulsory 16-year-old subject… I think all teacher training courses should involve coding and real computer literacy.”

Baker isn’t wholly pessimistic, and believes the tide is turning on the issue. I think that people are beginning to see a real value in skills, the government is quite right to promote apprenticeships… the very fact that there are fewer applying to universities means that the message is getting through.”

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