The Baker clause, which since 2018 has required schools to give their pupils access to information about technical education providers, has until now too often been ignored. This month, the skills and post-16 education act has finally made it legally enforceable and alongside royal assent, the DfE has also launched a consultation on new guidance for schools.
This guidance, intended to come into force in 2023, includes a prescriptive ladder of intervention designed to support them to implement the clause while also sanctioning those who routinely fail to meet their legal duty.
The Baker Dearing Trust welcomes these changes. What is needed next, however, is support for schools that embrace the clause so they are not left out of pocket if their pupils decide to follow a technical education route.
A need for change
When it was introduced in the 2017 technical and further education act, the Conservatives and Labour both wanted schools to expand the conversation about technical education options for their pupils. The clause was a marker in the sand, as vital then as it is now.
However, allowing university technical colleges or FE colleges to approach their pupils grated with many schools. After all, losing a pupil means losing the funding for that pupil. Letters from MPs and ministers discussing enforcement and talk of limiting Ofsted grades were unlikely to counterbalance that simple calculus.
So Lord Baker, in collaboration with leading MPs such as Robert Halfon, pushed for the new act to make the clause harder to defy. The new statutory guidance is designed to complement that and should not be seen as threatening but as giving schools a firmer idea of how to implement the new law.
Declines in GCSE entries for design and technology over the past decade are reason enough for technical education to have a stronger presence in schools. Ebacc restrictions have limited many pupils’ awareness of technical education before they reach sixth form, and they deserve to know just as much about it as they do A-levels.
Providers are increasingly offering T Levels, and opening pupils’ eyes to a range of promising careers in specialist industries such as marketing, digital and green energy is vital. But not just these. Schools employ apprentices in their thousands to fulfil vital classroom roles. In 2021-22, there were more apprenticeship starts in education than in agriculture or the arts. In some ways then, technical education providers are holding the school sector together as well as equipping young people with the skills our country needs.
But the new ladder of intervention, which could see the education secretary intervene in schools, ought only to be used in the worst cases of non-compliance. It cannot be right to deny pupils information about opportunities that could serve them better than traditional academic routes, and we should all welcome the opportunity to rebalance the perverse incentives that have led schools to shut out technical education providers.
To eliminate them altogether, though, we must push ministers to seriously consider the financial implications for schools. The next consultation on the Baker clause must contain options for mitigating the financial penalties schools take for abiding by this law.
The best way to go about this, as well as by responding to the consultation, is by starting to implement the enhanced guidance right now. We simply can’t allow pupils to miss out on learning about technical options for another year because the guidance hasn’t come into force.
So it won’t do any more for teachers to try to get around the law by handing out literature or showing pre-recorded videos. The best encounters are in-person, with time set aside for Q&A, and providers should be encouraged bring along an apprentice or employer partner to showcase what an apprenticeship, T Level or BTEC can offer them.
The success of the technical education sector speaks for itself and providers, employers and the DfE stand ready to help schools get these encounters right.
The opportunity is too important for pupils to miss out on. So let’s deliver for them, and work together to ensure the incentives follow.