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18 December 2014

Kenneth Baker: thinking beyond A-levels

The Conservative peer and former education secretary writes about the party’s plans for schools. 

By Kenneth Baker

Schools in England are undergoing two revolutions: the first is the extension of compulsory education or training to all 17- and 18-year-olds (known as the participation age) and the second is the conversion of local authority schools to academies.

In our very English way, these were not sudden changes; rather they have been slowly rumbling along for years. The decision to raise the participation age was made in 2008, with cross-party support. Meanwhile, the first schools to be made independent of local authorities were the 15 city technology colleges that I launched in 1986. They were to become the model for academies, which were given a boost in 2006 when Tony Blair announced a target of establishing 400 of them. When Labour left office there were 203 academies. By January 2014 there were 3,827, and more are in the pipeline.

The almost 4,000 academy schools cannot each be directly answerable to the Department for Education. Some are members of multi-academy trusts that serve as intermediaries, but many are not. As a result, eight regional schools commissioners have been appointed to monitor and, if necessary, intervene if a school falls into trouble.

Another approach would be to encourage schools and other educational institutions to co-operate at a local level by forming a cluster offering a wide range of choice in education and training. Such a cluster could include two primary schools, four secondary schools, a university technical college (specialising in science and technology) and other institutions with a strong vocational focus, such as a studio school or a career college. These clusters could pool resources by sharing some teachers, and even running joint payroll, HR and legal services. Ofsted’s chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, recommended such a system in a speech in November.

Clusters would allow schools to respond to an increase in the participation age, but it does raise the question: why should pupils move to secondary school at 11?

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Eleven became the normal age of transfer in England largely by chance. The committee that met in 1941 to plan the shape of postwar education recommended the transfer age be 13-14. That was never put to ministers. Instead, the permanent secretary said that as there were 1,700 grammar schools and direct grant schools with a transfer age of 11, no other transfer age would be possible. Today there are only 163 grammar schools left and so a transfer age of 11 need not dominate education, particularly when Europe is moving towards a division between lower secondary education up to 14 and upper secondary at 14-plus. This happens in Austria, which has one of the lowest levels of youth unemployment in Europe.

Raising the participation age, particularly when pupil numbers are rising, also means we need fresh ideas about the 14-18 curriculum. This should provide a wide choice – liberal arts, computing, catering, social work, finance and business, performing arts or sport – and it could include apprenticeships at 16 or 18. Two university technical colleges already offer apprenticeships at 16 and many students qualify for higher apprenticeships at 18.

Our purpose must be to create new pathways of success beyond three A-levels and a university degree – a route that is leading to a high level of graduate unemployment.

Kenneth Baker is a Conservative peer and former education secretary