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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:35 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative 2:35 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, the most interesting reform that Michael Gove introduced was to allow schools to be set up independent of local education authorities. In the past, only existing schools could contract out of local authority ownership, which was promoted vigorously by the previous Labour Government. Having done that, they provided a framework for new ideas to come forward. The team that has been working with me has been able, as a result of that, to establish a network of university technical colleges across the country—or parts of the country. At the moment, we have 30 open and another 30 about to open, so we are no longer an experiment, we are a movement. At the moment, there are 7,000 students at UTCs; next year, there will be 15,000. When they are all operating fully, there will be 40,000 students.

Why are they so popular? First, we find that young people are very attracted by a 14 to 18 period of education, a period of their lives at school. At 13 or 14, so many of our youngsters are disengaged from their schools. They are not learning anything which they think will help them in their life after school; we are very focused on life after school.

I am not alone in favouring the age range of 14 to 18. Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, has repeatedly called for more specialist colleges in our society from the age of 14. The country that has the lowest level of unemployment in Europe is Austria. In Austria, they stop the national curriculum at 14 and have a series of specialist colleges, technical colleges, liberal arts colleges, catering colleges and accountancy colleges. They have the lowest level of youth unemployment. As the author of the national curriculum, I now favour the national curriculum stopping at 14 and having a series of specialist colleges.

Why else are they popular? Their working hours are 8.30 till 5. You might think that many students would not like that. Yes, initially, but once they have got used to it, they are rather proud of the fact that they are coming in for so long while their friends at their former schools are leaving at three o’clock.

What makes the students really interested is that for two days of the week, they are designing and making things with their hands—with metal, wood, plaster, rubber, all sorts of things. I strongly believe that you can learn by doing as well as studying. In a phrase, I would say that the object of UTCs is to produce an intelligent hand. It was the intelligent hand that created the industrial revolution in our country. No great figure in the industrial revolution went anywhere near a university, but they had intelligent hands.

My last point is that when those students are working with their hands, they are working on projects and in teams. Teamwork is very good experience for youngsters. It is not common in most schools. You cannot learn history, French or German in teams, but you can learn when you are working on mechanical projects. Working on a team is a growing-up process, and the team will change every six weeks or so. Also, when students are working in teams, companies come in to teach them. Rolls-Royce comes in to give them lessons for eight weeks on piston pumps; Network Rail comes in to teach them for eight weeks on level-crossing gates and signalling. The students like that. They like to talk to real business people—businessmen and businesswomen. Again, that is an element of maturity.

These schools are dedicated to employability. We are very proud of the fact that when students leave UTCs—so far, we have had seven UTCs with leavers at 16 or 18—we have had no NEETs. Every student either has a job, an advanced apprenticeship at 16, is staying on at college to do A-levels or BTEC-equivalents, has got a higher apprenticeship at 18 or has gone to university. That pattern should spread throughout the whole of our educational system. The target for every school in the country should be no NEETS, and we are achieving it.

What have we learnt that would be of use to others? First, we have proved clearly that at 14, students are quite mature enough to decide where their interests lie. That has always been questioned in the past: are they going to make a decision too early in their lives? To begin with, because for 60% of the time they are doing GCSE subjects, they are having a general education. If they have made the wrong choice they can change but we have hardly any of those. At 14, they know what they want to do. This generation at 14 is more mature than my generation was, way back when I was 14.

Secondly, we have very high attendance rates, which are very encouraging, because the students find it worth while to come to these colleges. Some of them travel as much as 90 minutes in the morning, then 90 minutes in the afternoon and evening to get home. That means they are very tired indeed. Incidentally, we do not have homework, which is interesting because they still get very good results without it. We also treat them as adults at 14; they wear business dress to school, like we are wearing today, and they are given an iPad or a tablet. Their whole instruction is a much more conversational method of learning than the usual school has. It is a very effective method of teaching.

The other big win is that we get strong support from companies. We do not just ask them, “Can you take the youngsters to see your factory or business on a Friday afternoon?”. The majority of the governing bodies of these colleges are from universities and local businesses. They control the college. We ask them to devise projects of one sort or another for each eight weeks. We usually have five eight-week terms. For example, in Reading, the college is doing only computing and has great support from Cisco and Microsoft, but another company supporting it is a design company which is designing the new Reading station. It has given a task to the students, asking, “Can you design it better than us?”. For the students doing computing and computer-assisted design, that is second nature. They are into this and are coded up. That is a very good example—they are trying to design a better station than the company.

Another thing we have learnt is that what we are trying to do—the real purpose of these colleges—is to provide a different pathway of success. The present education system in our country is dominated far too much by having three A-levels and going to university. We now have 49% of youngsters going to university and, as a result, very high levels of graduate unemployment. Something like 30% of those who graduated in 2012 are working in non-graduate jobs, even at this time. So we are saying that there are other pathways of success, which will be just as successful as going to university.

My former PA, who is now a Minister, is about to get up to say that my time is up. I welcome him to his position on the Front Bench. I was saying that this is a different pathway of success and one of the things about the nature of education in the next 20 years in our country is that we have to create many more such pathways. Local authorities are coming to us and saying that they want a UTC alongside their comprehensives —or a career college which does catering and hospitality, similarly to UTCs—to offer all that other 50% a real chance of making their lives infinitely better.