Across British politics, there is a recognition that technical and vocational education has been badly neglected. The Government has recently made this one of its core priorities, via the introduction of T-levels for students aged 16 and over and new Institutes of Technology. This is particularly urgent, given our imminent departure from the European Union. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 43% of vacancies in skilled trades/occupations were due to skills shortages in 2015, and an additional 3.6 million vacancies in mid-level skilled occupations, such as advanced manufacturing, are predicted to arise by 2022.
Yet the existing technical and vocational schools are close to collapse. The University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and studio schools that are meant to provide this type education for 14-19 year-olds have become dumping grounds for children struggling in mainstream schools. As a result, they are languishing at the bottom of the league tables and struggling to fill their places. Nearly a third of those opened since 2011 have already closed.
In this report, endorsed by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff, Toby Young identifies a key problem that has hobbled technical and vocational education in Britain for more than 100 years and proposes a radical solution. In the report, ‘Technically Gifted’, he argues that we must break the Gordian Knot linking technical education to academic failure by allowing specialist schools to select their pupils according to aptitude for their occupational specialisms, instead of being forced to take those rejected by their mainstream neighbours as not bright enough to cope with the ‘common core’ of academic GCSEs. Rather than thinking of technical and vocational schools as second best for children of below average ability, as they have been since the beginning of the 20th Century, we should regard them as schools of opportunity for children of all abilities who have a particular flair for this type of education. And the pupils at these schools should still be expected to do the ‘common core’, thereby ensuring they don’t become an ‘alternative pathway’ for those who cannot cope with a broad and balanced curriculum.
Young, the co-founder of the West London Free School and former Director of New Schools Network, shows how the world’s most successful technical and vocational schools – the Meister schools of South Korea, the magnet career academies of New Jersey, and Britain’s own BRIT School – are those that carefully select pupils according to their aptitude for their specialisms at the age of 14 and still expect them to do traditional, academic subjects while acquiring advanced occupational skills. They aren’t seen as dumping grounds for children classified as ‘not academically bright’ by mainstream schools.
It is commonly assumed that English state schools, such as UTCs and studio schools, could not become selective without the Government passing an act of Parliament. But Young argues this is not the case. He shows that existing or new 14-19 specialist schools could be made 100% selective by aptitude with the powers already at the Education Secretary’s disposal. Creating more schools that select by ability is prohibited by the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act, but not schools that select by aptitude, so overturning that ban by passing fresh legislation would not be necessary.
This reform would complement the Prime Minister and Damian Hinds’s drive to boost the status of technical education, creating a prestigious route for students with a genuine passion and aptitude for this type of education from the age of 14, followed by T-levels and a place at one of the new Institutes of Technology.