I am all in favour of helping young people who want to go to university to do so. But after decades of education policy dominated by the University route, under governments of all colours, 36 per cent of young people make that choice in Greater Manchester. Which begs the question: what about the 64 per cent who don’t?
Our surveys of GM teenagers provide an answer to this question and make for difficult reading. Too many are left without a sense of direction or hope for their future, and feeling like second-class students.
We are determined to change this. Last week, seizing on the opportunities presented by the trailblazer devolution deal we recently agreed with the government, I unveiled plans for the UK’s first integrated technical education system with the aim of giving young people two clear, equal paths at 14: one academic, one technical.
Young people wishing to go to university have a clear path. The English Baccalaureate – or EBacc – is based on the GCSEs most favoured by universities. From there, they progress to A Levels and use the UCAS system to find a university place.
But there is no equivalent for the young people who wish to take technical qualifications and a more direct route to the world of work.
To create this balance, we are proposing a Greater Manchester Baccalaureate or MBacc, which would sit alongside the EBacc and be based on GCSEs and other qualifications most favoured by Greater Manchester employers. Our aim is to maximise people’s chances of getting valuable qualifications and a good job in the growing success story of the Greater Manchester economy.
There will be a range of views on what should and shouldn’t be included in the MBacc, so I am keen to hear from employers and educators. Following consultation, and subject to agreement with the government, our ambition is to start in September 2024.
For my part, I don’t envisage two rigid, parallel routes but an approach with as much commonality as possible that will offer young people plenty of academic and technical options at 16 and the ability to switch between the two.
Here’s my starter for ten to get the discussion going. I would propose that the MBacc has three core, compulsory subjects: English, maths and – because practically every job in the GM economy is to some extent a digital job – either computer science or an alternative ICT qualification. Beyond that, students could choose from existing EBacc subjects and, critically, also subjects that are often currently excluded. That could be engineering, business studies or any of the creative subjects that have been worryingly downgraded over the past decade or so.
The MBacc’s aim is to lead people to a productive destination. To that end, we will build our integrated system around seven gateways reflecting the strongest areas of the Greater Manchester economy. These include sectors like manufacturing and engineering, digital and technology, and health and social care. Each of the gateways will lead to a group of quality T Levels, other technical qualifications, apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships.
This approach will only work if young people have access to wider careers and life advice to make informed decisions, and enrichment opportunities to help them become ‘work-ready’. It is also underpinned by ‘Our Pass’ – our free bus pass for 16- to 18-year-olds which opens up cultural and sporting activities, but also greater choice of education providers.
My belief is that a system of this kind, which offers a path for everyone, will help raise overall levels of attainment and school performance. If more students feel school is taking them somewhere and are constructively engaged at key stage 4, that can only be beneficial for all students.
My sense is our secondary headteachers feel the same way. James Eldon, headteacher of the Manchester Academy in Moss Side, told our launch event last week that he had invented his own version of the MBacc because he didn’t feel he had enough to say to students and parents at options evenings. It made the case for change more powerfully than anything else.
We can no longer afford our historic snobbery about technical education. Devolution to the English regions finally gives us the chance to get this right – and fix another issue Westminster has long neglected.