Kenneth Baker’s 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education was published earlier this year, as Michael Gove’s offensive on the secondary curriculum continued unabatedly. Concerned about how the emphasis on Ebacc subjects would marginalise vocational learning and openly critical of Alison Wolf’s proposal that vocational options should be restricted to 20% of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, Baker enlists support from Mike Tomlinson, Alan Smithers and others.
Though the book includes some interesting ideas for the recreation of ‘middle schools’ and its back cover enjoys a range of endorsements, it doesn’t really provide a ‘new vision’, at all. Rather it’s a return to the ideas of Ron Dearing and post-14 ‘tracking’ (Baker himself having set up the Baker Dearing Education Trust). Brought in to rescue Baker’s doomed ten subject National Curriculum from growing teacher unrest, not to mention a SATs boycott in the early 1990s, Dearing proposed that young people chose either academic or vocational pathways at age 14. During the next decade a vocational courses established themselves in most state secondary schools. Ostensibly promoted as enabling more curriculum choice reflecting a student’s ‘aptitude’ the reality was that schools put their less academic students on the GNVQs and BTECs.
The Gove curriculum (and Wolf’s recommendations) is designed to roll-back this approach. Instead a subject based and ideologically loaded ‘grammar school’ curriculum has been imposed on all students. Even if the English Baccalaureate proposals have been overturned, GCSE has been rewritten to resemble the post-war O-level. Vocational qualifications have been pruned and excluded from school league tables on the grounds that they are less rigorous and less demanding and that comprehensive schools have deliberately entered students for them, to improve league table positions. Gove has tried to position himself as somebody wanting to restart social mobility, arguing that everybody will now have the chance to study the ‘core’ subjects valued by prestigious universities. The reality is that for most young people, the chances of upwards mobility will fall even further.
Celebrating a diversity of learning opportunities even arguing young people may have particular aptitudes is one thing. Calling for different types of ‘Liberal Arts’, ‘Technical’ ‘Sports and Creative Arts’ and ‘ Career’ schools at 14 as Baker does is quite another. Baker, who has already been instrumental in establishing University Technical Colleges (UTCs) of which five are now open and another 28 approved, points to European counties like Germany and Holland; where there are different schools for different routes. In the UTCs students will spend 40% of time on their technical subjects and 60% on a more general curriculum, including learning a foreign language though this will be tailored to their specialism, Baker giving ‘German for engineering’ as an example.
In terms of labour market placement it’s certainly the case that German technical education has worked well, though it’s the German apprenticeship system to which 60% progress after they leave school and where 90% who complete, go into employment, that is seen to be the centre piece of the ‘dual system’. Baker says little about apprenticeships and nothing about how the German model has been based, at least until now, on a conception of ‘social partnership’ between employers and trade unions; rather than the free market. The current UK system of apprenticeships has little in common with this – Baker seems ignorant to the fact that 70% of those participating in apprenticeships are adults, most of whom are already working for their employers.
Neither do Baker, or any of the participating authors, attempt any real analysis of changes to occupational structure and which are most advanced in the ‘flexible’ labour markets of the UK and US. Baker is right to dismiss the ‘misguided optimism….held for several decades that a computerized, knowledge-based economy will provide a massive number of jobs for knowledge workers’ (11) but completely wrong to assume that economic prosperity and low levels of youth unemployment will depend on the re-emergence of skilled manual work (https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/the-hour-glass-economy/) and an education which allows young people to ‘get their hands dirty’ (www.utcolleges.org/newsfolder/at-last,-schools-for-getting-your-hands-dirty).
As a result, Baker’s proposals are more likely to resemble the British ‘tripartite’ model of the post-war years and they should not be regarded as an alternative to Gove. Progressives should continue to defend the idea of ‘common schools’ which provide a good general education for all young people. Baker’s proposals promise neither.