When I was 16 I failed all my O-levels, bar a grade C in English Literature, and concluded I wasn’t academically bright. Instead of retaking my O--levels, doing some A-levels and trying to get a place at university, I decided to pursue a career as a tradesman and enrolled on a residential work experience course. It was a bit like a boarding school, except it offered students a technical and vocational education rather than an academic one.
It was a miserable period of my life. The stench of failure hung over the institution like a toxic cloud and my fellow students and I were treated as if we were semi-delinquents who might at any moment go off the rails. I was apprenticed to a succession of skilled tradesmen, but they regarded me with suspicion and had little or no patience for teaching me the rudiments of their professions. Hardly surprising, given the premise of the school. In effect, the local education authority was telling these proud working men, most of whom were exceptionally competent, that their livelihoods were last-ditch alternatives for students of below-average ability.
After six months of this purgatory, I opted to go back to school and ended up at Oxford. My life turned out OK, and until recently I preferred not to think about the whole sorry episode. But when I unexpectedly found myself with some time on my hands at the beginning of the year, I decided to investigate this neglected basement of England’s education system and see if I could think of ways to improve it. The result is a report for the Centre for Policy Studies entitled ‘Technically Gifted: Only selection can save Britain’s technical and vocational education system’, published this week.
After immersing myself in the history of this sector dating back to the beginning of the last century, I concluded that the reason nearly all technical and vocational schools have failed is because the authorities have always regarded them as only fit for students who cannot cope with the standard diet of mainstream subjects. Or, as an official report put it in 1906, for children destined for ‘the lower ranks of commerce and industry’.
If these schools are ever going to succeed, we have to break the Gordian knot tying this type of education to academic failure. We shouldn’t shunt children into them simply because they’re unsuited for mainstream schools. Rather, we should reserve the places for students who have a particular flair for careers in skilled occupations, i.e. they should have to pass an aptitude test. Going to these schools should be a privilege, not a consolation prize for those who can’t hack academic subjects. And to ram this point home, we should insist that the pupils at technical and vocational schools should do a ‘common core’ of five intellectually demanding GCSEs.
The benefit of allowing these schools to select is obvious. At present, the vast majority of the schools offering children a technical and vocational education are University Technical Colleges and studio schools, and, with a few exceptions, they are struggling to stay afloat. Some 112 have opened since 2011 and 35 have already gone under. That’s a shocking rate of attrition, but the schools themselves are, for the most part, not to blame. The reason they’re failing is because neighbouring comprehensives are using them as dumping grounds, herding their most challenging, hard-to-teach pupils into them before their poor GCSE results can affect the schools’ standing in the league tables. The only way to put a stop to this cynical behaviour is to allow UTCs and studio schools to select pupils according to aptitude.
Unlike the creation of more grammar schools, this would not require an Act of Parliament. A technical and vocational school with exactly the same age range — 14 to 19 — called Birmingham Ormiston Academy opened in 2011 and, thanks to a special dispensation granted to it by the Education Secretary, it is 100 per cent selective. It specialises in preparing children to work in the creative industries and it’s a huge success, with 96 per cent of its students going on to further education or employment. If Damian Hinds granted the same latitude to other such schools, we could have similarly successful institutions in every city in England.
With 3.6 million vacancies in skilled occupations predicted to arise by 2022, we urgently need some high-calibre specialist schools. The quickest way to achieve this is to allow our existing ones to become selective.