UTC architect Lord Baker slams government over ‘narrow’ EBacc

The architect of the University Technical College (UTC) model has launched a scathing attack on the government’s “narrow” English Baccalaureate (EBacc), slamming it as a “missed opportunity” to fulfil the prime minister’s vision for social mobility.

Lord Kenneth Baker, former education secretary and founder of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust set up to promote the concept of UTCs, believes that in its current form, the EBacc is “regressive” and reduces opportunities for students with low attainment.

In a new report published today, called 14-19 Education: A New Baccalaureate by education charity Edge Foundation, where Lord Baker is chair, he says: “There is a correlation between affluence and academic success. I wish it were not so, but wishful thinking will not solve the problems of deprivation, and nor will the EBacc, in its current form.

“Our workforce needs a new set of skills, including expertise in emerging technologies. This narrow academic curriculum is regressive and will severely limit learning of the technical and creative subjects we desperately need in our new digital age.”

The EBacc is a new performance measure, brought in by the coalition government, which is achieved when pupils get a grade C or above in a “core” group of seven subjects: English (x2), maths, science (x2), a modern foreign language (MFL), and history or geography.

The government intended for it to encourage a more “traditional” curriculum in schools, but concerns have been raised about the impact on arts and vocational subjects.

According to Edge’s new research, students are entered for 8.1 GCSE exams on average, and although schools are free to offer subjects outside the “core” EBacc areas, it leaves pupils with “very limited space for anything other than this narrow academic diet”.

“Ironically, students with low attainment, the very group most likely to be disengaged, are typically entered for 6.9 exams, so the narrow EBacc would become their entire curriculum,” a spokesperson added.

Almost 90 MPs sent a letter to prime minister Theresa May and education secretary Justine Greening in July demanding that pupils should be able to choose between computer science and design and technology as part of the EBacc.

Lord Baker has now called for the EBacc to be expanded to take on technical qualifications from age 16 – with programmes delivered in “cities and large towns by clusters of mainstream schools and colleges and specialist institutions modelled on UTC, career colleges and studio schools”.

In rural areas, he called for “dual enrolment” with students spending the bulk of their time in their local school, and travelling “one or two days a week to a college or specialist institution to learn from people with first-hand industrial, creative and commercial experience”.

He said the government’s current EBacc is a “narrow-minded view” that “‘technical’ and ‘vocational’ forms of education are for those who fail to achieve academically; in reality, the countries with the lowest youth unemployment and the most highly skilled workforce are those where technical subjects are studied side by side with academic subjects”.

His comments come just a few weeks after new research by the Institute for Public Policy Research found pupils at UTCs and studio schools were more likely to have lower attainment and to have “under progressed” in primary schools.

There was also evidence that multi-academy trusts with their own 14-19 institutions are moving lower-attaining pupils into the vocational schools at higher rates.

Lord Baker added: “In my vision for 2025, all students would follow a single, coherent 14-19 framework leading to a leaving diploma recognising the full range of academic and technical achievement including GCSEs, A-levels and technical qualifications.”

Sir Mike Tomlinson, chair of the working group for 14 to 19 reform, said the proposals deserve to be taken “very seriously if we are to have an education system which truly caters for all students whatever their talents”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The EBacc is studied as part of a broad curriculum and provides a strong academic foundation, while allowing students to study additional subjects that reflect their individual strengths and interests. We agree that subjects like technology are important and have worked closely with employers to review the curriculum to make sure young people have the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.”

You can read an expert piece by Lord Baker on the issue here.

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  1. Lord Baker is right – pupils deserve a broad curriculum which is not dominated by an excessive emphasis on exam results. But it should extend to 16 and not end at 14. And there should be fewer exams at 16 as there are in other countries (where such tests exist). Exams at 16 should be for the benefit of pupils: they should assess their achievement and decide post-16 progression. They should NOT be used to judge schools.

  2. What is needed is a revival of Lord Baker’s Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI) which did much to promote generic vocational education, work experience and careers education and guidance (CEG) in the 80s. The advances made by TVEI were lost when funding ceased and when Michael Gove downgraded work experience. Worse, Gove had a visceral hatred of careers advisers, telling the Education Select Committee they were ‘self-interested’ parties spouting ‘garbage’. This has contributed to the dire state of generic work-related education and CEG in England.

  3. Janet Downs is right.

    In my teaching career during the 1980s I spent many years in schools committed to the (then) Conservative government’s Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative (TVEI). This was extremely successful. It was not about ‘skills training’ at all. To get the TVEI money, which was substantial, schools had to adopt a ‘broad and balanced’, non gender biased curriculum for all pupils of all abilities. In one of my schools, a large Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, I was the ‘Curriculum Vice Principal’. In the other I was head of an 11-16 school in the socially deprived centre of Barrow-in Furness.

    The KS4 timetable models we devised in both schools were similar and met the TVEI requirements. GCSE courses in English (and English literature), maths, double award science, French or German, humanities and core technology (on a rota) were all part of the core curriculum for all students. This also included PE/Games and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) which included Careers Guidance. This still left two GCSE option blocks for art/design/technology specialisms, a third science, music, drama and a second language.

    The EBacc curriculum is the current albeit somewhat less broad and balanced version of this approach. In my view it is often wrongly attacked by those who rightly condemn other aspects of government education policy. All of the Ebacc subjects, and especially maths and science, have significant potential as effective vehicles for cognitive development. A common argument takes the form, why do ‘less academic’ school students have to learn stuff like (for example) trigonometry that they are unlikely ever use in their adult lives?

    The answer is that hopefully they will be using their brains a lot and that a well developed mind (a function of the brain) has massive universal positive application, including for the student, the maximising of choices for post-16 academic or vocational progression, that specialisation at 14 would have prematurely preempted.


  4. The problem is that the UTC model is flawed. It relies on the establishment of very small and unsustainable 14-18 schools which end up undersubscribed or full of low performing boys that have been pushed out of other schools.

    They are too small to be viable under the current funding model and not attractive to most parents whose children are already settled into schools at the age of 11. 14 is not a natural point of transfer in our current secondary system.