Guest leader: A timely technical advance

University-led institutes involving employers and councils can give vocational education the status it deserves, says Ron Dearing

December 11, 2008

Twenty years ago, I had a call from Kenneth Baker, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science. On no basis other than what he knew about me from my days as head of the Post Office, he wanted me to chair the Council for National Academic Awards.

As always, one thing led to another, and we came together again in the Lords, not always agreeing, but always exchanging ideas. On one, we recently found ourselves not only in strong agreement, but determined to take action.

It was to pick up an argument in a 1990 leader in the Financial Times contending that "the absence of a tier of technical schools is the single biggest failure of British postwar educational policy". Not that we thought that we had ever got technical schools right, but that maybe there were other approaches that would meet the needs of the times. The 2006 Leitch report, vocational diplomas, the piloting of young apprenticeships and the academies programme all suggested an opportunity for us two backbenchers to explore new approaches.

Our basic concept was a college, with entry at 14 and 16, specialising in one or two diploma areas, especially where expensive specialised equipment was needed, sponsored by a university, whose name the college would take. The involvement of a university or further education college was fundamental to the concept: we wanted a partnership between higher education and vocational schools.

To foster loyalty, student numbers would be kept at about 600. There would be two entry streams, diplomas and young apprenticeships, and arrangements for progression to higher education through academic routes or work-based learning. A closely focused specialism would help contextualise English and mathematics so as to increase motivation.

As to the old problem of the standing of vocational education, the distinctive role of the university partner, the quality of opportunity offered and the partnership of employers should speak for themselves.

We launched the idea earlier this year in Birmingham in a low-key way at a seminar on the role of higher education. The response was immediate. First came the comment from an industrialist: "You educationists are good on the chat: what about some action?" Aston University was in action the next morning: very interested. The city council agreed to an exploratory meeting.

Since then there has been much quiet consultation to develop a proposal covering engineering and manufacturing, which was announced last week. Other proposals are in the pipeline.

Aston's pro vice-chancellor Alison Halstead, herself an engineer, has been deeply engaged in developing the programme. Working with the City, she has won the support of employers of national and local standing, another key element in the partnership.

We have had exploratory talks with other universities. Responses suggest that this is an idea whose time has come. It takes as a datum government policies since Leitch, and its structural proposals for their delivery, but offers the option of a form of response that is distinctively local and locally decided.

It just may be that two backbenchers, one a Conservative and the other a cross-bencher in the Lords, with no powers or party behind them, have something going for them. And there is nothing up the sleeve, except goodwill.

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