Technical colleges for 14-year-olds

Bookmark and Share

Lord Dearing – writing exclusively here for Managing School Today – believes the UK’s skills deficit could be addressed by reintroducing technical colleges as an option for 14-year-olds.

Speaking as an independent crossbencher in the House of Lords during the debate on the Queen’s Speech in October, I proposed the reintroduction of technical colleges as an option for 14-year-olds. I did so as someone who has supported the comprehensive principle since coming into the schools world in 1993.

This issue – the suitability of the comprehensive for every pupil – has surfaced in the Lords from time to time in the context of its ability to meet the whole spectrum of special educational needs, and has led to advocacy of the place of special schools, whose future has sometimes seemed in doubt, for those who have the more demanding special needs.

The specific impulse for me to propose extending special provision to technical colleges came in part from reflection on the Leitch Report of last December  on the skills deficit, and also from wondering how on how on Earth schools can best deliver the first 14 specialist diplomas to a desirable standard of excellence as they come on stream over the next three years, while also offering the normal GCSE and A-level syllabuses – for the school, a timetabling problem of some magnitude!

I was also concerned from the management point of view about the changed relationship between teachers and pupils if many of them after 14 were having to spend a significant part of their time in other institutions to study for a diploma. Finally, with the Government’s new policy of requiring all young people to stay in education or training until 18, I wondered how best we could motivate those of today’s 14-year-olds who have already had enough of learning, and may already be a problem for teachers, to make use of this opportunity.

The Government will have in mind that the diplomas are part of the answer to motivation, and that the provision of the diplomas alongside the traditional learning can be achieved by partnerships of schools, or of schools and FE colleges, with pupils going to whichever collaborating institution is appropriate for their specialism, for that part of their learning. This could undoubtedly be done. But is it the best way? There are arguments for it: for example, compared with transfers at 14 to a technology college, it reduces the number of upheavals in a student’s life. Also, it caters well for those who have chosen one track and find it is not for them, and want to start again.

But there is a cost. First, some pupils will tend to get ‘lost on the way’ to the other institution and these are probably the ones for whom we most need to offer one good place for their learning. Second, it matters that a pupil identities with and has a feeling of ownership for his or her school, where they feel at home and comfortable. This, again, is particularly relevant to those who have not being doing well so far at school, and as things are, by 14, have frankly had enough of it.

Next, and very importantly, if technical and skills education is ever to get the standing it has had abroad, it needs to be seen as special: as being of the highest quality in terms of teaching, equipment and buildings. The choice of a technical- or skills-orientated curriculum has to be one that can be made with pride. Can I underline the word ‘choice’? I am not talking about a separation of pupils at 11 on the basis of Key Stage 2 tests, or at 14 from the tests at that age, but of choices made by pupils and parents at the end of Key Stage 3, with the help of advice from schools and the careers service.

It is not about selection, but about informed choice. I have a third reason for airing the case for technical colleges, which needs a paragraph of its own. Such is the dominance in  our society of academic achievement and academic values – and the respect for forms of assessment that lend themselves to external marking – that once technical and academic education are put together, the academic culture ‘reforms’ the technical.

As chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the early 1990s I fought for and secured some flexibility in the Key Stage 4 curriculum to make room for a GNVQ, equivalent in weight to one GCSE. It was a distinctive approach to learning that was highly motivating for some pupils. But to enhance its standing, in the fullness of time it became an ‘applied GCSE’, and the academic culture associated with the GCSE changed it; a change, at least in terms of my objectives, that was not for the better. My own record is not spotless. To enhance the standing of vocational qualifications and with a view to both the academic and vocational cultures having something good to contribute to the other, in 1996 it was I who recommended the merger of the Qualifications Authority with the NCVQ. Unhappily in the merger the influence was very largely one way – the academic way.

I have so far outlined the case for meeting the needs of pupils and society through comprehensive schools working together, and my alternative suggestion for complementing mainstream provision through the comprehensives through high-quality technical colleges for skills and technology. There are arguments for both.

My proposed resolution of these competing arguments is that the technical colleges should be specially for those skills and technologies that require specialist equipment. Otherwise provision would be through the comprehensive. That would be my model for cities and big towns. In country areas it may be that there would have to be a plain choice between a purely comprehensive structure, and one involving comprehensives, plus a technical college covering a wider range of diplomas and skills than I am envisaging in towns. But I would add at this point that before any decisions of that detail were made, it would be wise to look at practice elsewhere, not just in Europe but in the Far East; in Singapore, for example.

Of course there is a history to this debate. Junior technical schools (JTSs) became one of the options that LEAs could offer in 1905 following the report of the Morley Commission, which had been impressed by the technical and trade schools in the USA. Thinking appears also to have been influenced by the level of disaffection among young people at the time, reflected in levels of juvenile crime, hooliganism, and street gangs and drunkenness. Maybe there is a resonance of that today, but that is not what prompted my advocacy of the case for new thinking on technical colleges.

The JTSs never took off in large numbers: decisions were a matter for LEAs and 20 years after their introduction there were only 100 of them with some 20,000 pupils. By the start of the Second World War the number had grown to 250, but they were typically small, averaging around 120 pupils. Under the 1944 Act they were re-badged as secondary technical schools to increase their status, and by 1960 the number of students had risen to 100,000, but that is as high as it ever got.

Anthony Crosland’s 1965 circular requesting LEAs to make the comprehensive school the normal pattern spelt the end, and by 1985 they were virtually part of history. Our history of technical education is thus very different from that of other major advanced nations: Germany, France and the USA, for example. An editorial in the Financial Times in 1990 commented that “the absence of a tier of technical schools is the single biggest failure of British post-War educational policy”.  It is not as if we were unaware of the way we had drifted away from practice overseas and the
consequent under skilling of our people at all levels, right to the top. The Paris Exhibition of 1867 destroyed the coincidence, engendered by the London 1851 Exhibition, that all was well and Alison Wolf’s book Does Education Matter? lists 23 committees of enquiry and reports on vocational and technical education in the century that followed the Paris Exhibition. Leitch is the latest in that series.

My raising the case for technical colleges is thus against the background that for 140 years we have been talking about the need to remedy our lack of skilled workers and technologists, and finding that the problem is as big as, if not bigger than, it has ever been. And if there is any doubt of that, look at the extent to which skilled workers are flooding in from overseas, and how good they are. Just as important, we have too many pupils entering Key Stage 4 for whom the standard offering in the comprehensive, even now that most have specialisms, is not working. We have far too many leaving school with very little in terms of awards to show for it, and no less worrying, no appetite for
continuing in learning or training. We have lost them.

An indicator of this is the 200,000 young people without a job or in education or training, the so-called ‘NEETs’. Twenty years ago in a speech to the CBI, Norman Fowler called on every Training and Enterprise Council in its business plan
to set itself the objective that “each and every one of our young people up to and including the age of 18 should either be in full-time education or in a job or in training”.  Well, we don’t seem to have cracked it.

Having said all this, what you may ask would these technical colleges offer. For the specialist diplomas the curriculum is currently being defined by the sponsor body for each diploma. For a specially skills-based course, it would be a preparation for entering an apprenticeship in the relevant craft, and general education with functional English and maths, by which I mean in particular arithmetic; a subject from the arts, including in particular music, dance, drama, or art itself; functional languages; citizenship, PE and religious studies. I list these not as a definitive list, but to underline that what I have in mind is not simple trade training, but education as a preparation for life.

Finally, and this is important, my purpose is to offer a wider range of young people a highly regarded motivating choice for engagement in education from 14 to 18: an education in which they feel they can succeed rather than fail, and which they consider relevant to their lives. It is to offer the would-be student of a diploma, in a discipline that requires highly specialised and continually updated equipment, a world-class opportunity. One of the reasons technical education never fully took off in the 20th century was that cash-strapped LEAs found the level of staffing and the cost of equipment a good deal higher than for the traditional academic route. It is, but we have learnt to our cost that the cost of the present high level of failure in traditional education and the cost of a “non-competitive workforce” (to quote Sir John Cassels, a former head of the National Economic Development Office) is even higher.

I hope, and it is asking a lot, that people will be willing to think this through with an open mind. This is not a ‘sheep and goats’ exercise, or selection by another name; it is conceived as a free choice of a form of education which would encompass those looking for the basis for an apprenticeship, and no less those who are likely to go on to higher education under the diploma route. The scale of rebuilding our secondary schools planned by the Government gives a once-in-50-years chance to do some rethinking on secondary provision and to offer technical colleges built and equipped to do a first-class job.

Lord Dearing

Taken from Managing Schools Today

Subscribe Here

School Leadership Today