Kenneth Baker: Education must change to meet country's needs

AS my life is largely taken over by technical education these days, I have read many such reports and the House of Lords inquiry, Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education is one of the highest quality that I have seen in recent years.

Britain needs to change its approach to apprenticeships, says Ken Baker.

I am glad that the Economic Affairs Committee visited one of my University Technical Colleges (UTCs) – at Aston in Birmingham, one of the first – which train youngsters from 14 to 18. We are very proud that it has the best destination data of any school in the country.

We deal with some difficult youngsters at the age of 14 – some 30 to 40 per cent are challenging – but we have virtually no NEETs. Thirty per cent become apprentices, compared to seven per cent of a normal school, and 47 per cent go to university, three-quarters of whom do STEM subjects. This is just what the country needs.

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Another charity of which I am chairman produced three reports last year on the skills gap: the first on engineering, where the gap is over 100,000; the second on digital, where it is also over 100,000; and the third on the creative industries, which also has a gap of over 100,000.

Ken Baker is a former Education Secretary.

Now we are dealing with agriculture and horticulture, which will be the same. The skills gap is so large that the Government no longer publish figures on it, but it will be a major problem post-Brexit.

I particularly support three of the report’s recommendations. First, the Government should explore restoring teaching funding for further education colleges so that they can cover costs and stimulate courses at levels 4 and 5.

The cut in further education since 2010 has been scandalous – a cut of far, far too much, which has to be restored. Level 4 is just above A-level, or diploma, and level 5 is foundation degrees. That is where the skills gap is and more money must be given to FE colleges for that.

The second recommendation I support concerns flexible learning. Higher and further education institutions should work closely together and with employers. It is important to get employers involved with this.

Some universities do and some do not. Sheffield Hallam is particularly good and employability is at the centre of its drive. It is looking all the time for possible jobs for its students and works closely with employers.

At our colleges, employers not only have control of the board, but have to produce projects for the students to work on and provide apprentices. So we need employers working with higher education institutions.

The other recommendation I strongly support is that the Government should have a clear plan for degree apprentices within its broader HE policy. This is critical. Universities are beginning to toy with degree apprentices – I put it no higher than that. They are experimenting; it is new for them and they do not quite know how it works, but it is essential.​

I agree about there being too much academic humanities education in our country today, where we have graduate unemployment and graduate under-employment. We have to improve technical education throughout the school system. It is depressing to realise that every attempt to improve technical education in our country has failed. I hope UTCs will buck 
the trend.

On degree apprentices, I have come across a university in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, which has only degree apprentices. Consider that for a moment. The students do not apply to go to that university; they are placed there by their companies, which pay them a salary to study there.

In my view, this is a revolution, and I am going to visit Stuttgart to see how it works. The scheme is quite large – I think it has 3,000 students and covers engineering, quantity surveying and law. I am going to see whether it would be possible to create such an institution in our country. It would be a rather sophisticated form of a polytechnic if I could get it off the ground, and it is a very interesting idea.

Today, more and more youngsters will want to take technical education and technical degrees because that is where the jobs are. Two youngsters in our village both got first-class degrees – one in English from Oxford and the other in philosophy from York – and they are doing part-time, rather low-paid jobs.

This is not what our education system should be producing. We should produce youngsters who are needed by the economy and could earn very high salaries. We should not forget that to be a higher apprentice at 18, you must have one A-level – not a mass of them – usually in maths or physics, and a BTEC extended diploma.

Companies will then pay you £20,000 a year to study in further education. The Navy is so short of people that it pays 18 year-old students £32,500, and we provide many of those students for the Navy. This reflects the greatest need, and this is where we have to change radically our country’s education policy.

Lord Baker of Dorking is a former Education Secretary. He spoke in a House of Lords debate on skills. This is 
an edited version.