Ben, an articulate 14-year-old hard at work in the school design and proto-typing centre, is explaining to Lord Baker of Dorking how 3D printing works. Baker, a former Tory education secretary, listens intently before declaring the technology ‘marvellous’. This coming July will mark the 25th anniversary of his leaving the Department for Education — but Lord Baker, who turns 80 this year, has never quite stopped the school reform that he started.
We’re at the University Technical College (UTC) in Sheffield, one of 17 such schools which has opened in recent years following the decision by Baker and his late friend Ron Dearing, the former Post Office boss, to make the remodelling of the English schools system their retirement project.
Baker is an extraordinary force of nature. Beyond the still slick hair and wide smile — lampooned to such good effect by Spitting Image and cartoonists in the 1980s — there is tenacity, energy and a determination not to be diverted when he is pursuing a pet project. After leaving the cabinet he also became a great defender of cartoonists and the role they play in cutting politicians down to size: he was one of the driving forces in the establishment of London’s Cartoon Museum.
When I met Baker in his office at Westminster seven years ago, he said he had an idea, which I thought was brilliant. For years the British have complained about a skills shortage — not surprisingly, given the appalling quality of our vocational schooling compared to that on offer in a country such as Germany. So why not establish new schools to take pupils from 14, offering them a high-quality technical education in schools supported by businesses? Pupils would spend the equivalent of two days a week acquiring hands-on skills in engineering, design, science or manufacturing, with the rest devoted to giving them a good grounding in the fundamentals.
Back then, for all its attractions, the idea sounded fanciful. How could a septua-genarian Tory peer possibly get such an enormous project off the ground and convince government to fund it? After all, Tony Blair had had enough trouble setting up new schools — and he had the might of the British government behind him.
But while others would have got lost in bureaucracy, Baker just got on and did it. Three of his schools opened in the dying days of the last Labour government, supported by Blair’s pioneering reformer Lord Adonis. The scheme has become so popular that another 15 UTCs are due to open this September, all sponsored by universities, with 18 more planned for next year. They are backed by companies such as JCB, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover, and have a non-selective intake. The Prime Minister has declared that he wants a UTC in every town and Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, is supportive of the concept.
It is not hard to see why parents were keen to get their children into the school in Sheffield, which opened with its initial intake last year. The place crackles with creativity and optimism, while the pupils are enthusiastic and smartly turned out. ‘Parents say wow! They like it here because they want their kids to get a job,’ says the principal Nick Crew. ‘They can see the rigour.’
Crew, 48, knows all about the need to adapt to changing economic circumstances. He began his career in the coal industry in the 1980s with an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, before the decline of the industry prompted him to get a degree and move into education. His school — which opened last year in the city centre in a smart modern building bolted on to a reclaimed old metalworks — sets a ‘very high bar’ on discipline, but they have few problems, because the education they offer is exciting.
As well as normal classrooms for the core subjects, there are all manner of design labs, featuring those 3D printers, robotics equipment and traditional lathes. Upstairs, on their Macs, pupils learn computer coding and work on projects designed with the help of the local university. The teachers claim that these pupils will have a head start that can be measured in years when they go into industry as an apprentice or on to university.
Every new type of school has its critics, and the UTC is no exception. It’s accused of skimming talent from other schools. Of all the criticisms of school reform, this is the least persuasive. While school choice makes life more difficult for bureaucrats, Baker’s principle is the same that guided him when setting up city technology colleges in the 1980s, the precursor to the Blair/Gove academies: the point of reform is to change the system so it works for the pupils.
But even in Michael Gove’s Department for Education there is some scepticism about the Baker project. The government’s focus has been on greater academic rigour and on raising standards in traditional schools that take pupils up to 18. It illustrates the paradox of reform: if you let a thousand flowers bloom, some of them will do so in ways you don’t necessarily expect. Contrary to the Gove view, Baker believes that 14 is the best age for pupils to make a choice on the type of school that suits them, rather than locking them into the generalist comprehensive they joined aged 11. Why not, he suggests, have a range of different types of school from 14, with specialisms to suit pupils’ needs? In addition to UTCs there could be purely academic liberal arts colleges. Dare one call them ‘grammar schools’?
As someone who attended a large concrete comprehensive in the 1980s, I can testify that the purely academic route after 14 is not for everyone. I witnessed the waste of human potential and the pent-up energy, frustration and rage of those who should have been equipped for good jobs being dragooned into classes they hated. So I can see how the UTC offers pupils an exciting alternative.
Baker is on a mission to create schools that produce highly skilled technicians and engineers, of which there is a chronic national shortage. If he succeeds, it will eliminate the problem of ‘neets’, youngsters who are not in education, employment or training. ‘Every student who leaves a UTC will go into a job, an apprenticeship, a higher apprenticeship, or to university,’ says Baker.
The schools may come to stand not only as Baker’s great achievement but as one of this government’s most important initiatives. They will help produce the next generation of bright engineers, inventors, designers, technicians and manufacturers we need to power our way to prosperity in the decades ahead.
As we walk to the station, Baker casts a glance back at Nick Crew’s inspirational institution and says he dares anyone to be gloomy about Britain and its prospects once they have met the pupils and staff of such a school. And he is right. To see UTC Sheffield is to have one’s faith in the country’s future restored.
Iain Martin is a former editor of the Scotsman and the author of Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy.