Magazine article The Spectator

Lord Baker's College Days the School System at the Age of 79

Magazine article The Spectator

Lord Baker's College Days the School System at the Age of 79

Article excerpt

Ben, an articulate 14-year-old hard at work in the school design and prototyping centre, is explaining to Lord Baker of Dorking how 3D printing works.

Baker, a former Tory education secretary, listens intently before declaring the technology 'marvellous'. This coming July will mark the 25th anniversary of his leaving the Department for Education - but Lord Baker, who turns 80 this year, has never quite stopped the school reform that he started.

We're at the University Technical College (UTC) in Sheffield, one of 17 such schools which has opened in recent years following the decision by Baker and his late friend Ron Dearing, the former Post Office boss, to make the remodelling of the English schools system their retirement project.

Baker is an extraordinary force of nature.

Beyond the still slick hair and wide smile - lampooned to such good effect by Spitting Image and cartoonists in the 1980s - there is tenacity, energy and a determination not to be diverted when he is pursuing a pet project.

After leaving the cabinet he also became a great defender of cartoonists and the role they play in cutting politicians down to size: he was one of the driving forces in the establishment of London's Cartoon Museum.

When I met Baker in his office at Westminster seven years ago, he said he had an idea, which I thought was brilliant. For years the British have complained about a skills shortage - not surprisingly, given the appalling quality of our vocational schooling compared to that on offer in a country such as Germany. So why not establish new schools to take pupils from 14, offering them a high-quality technical education in schools supported by businesses? Pupils would spend the equivalent of two days a week acquiring hands-on skills in engineering, design, science or manufacturing, with the rest devoted to giving them a good grounding in the fundamentals.

Back then, for all its attractions, the idea sounded fanciful. How could a septua genarian Tory peer possibly get such an enormous project off the ground and convince government to fund it? After all, Tony Blair had had enough trouble setting up new schools - and he had the might of the British government behind him.

But while others would have got lost in bureaucracy, Baker just got on and did it.

Three of his schools opened in the dying days of the last Labour government, supported by Blair's pioneering reformer Lord Adonis. The scheme has become so popular that another 15 UTCs are due to open this September, all sponsored by universities, with 18 more planned for next year. They are backed by companies such as JCB, Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover, and have a non-selective intake. The Prime Minister has declared that he wants a UTC in every town and Labour's shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, is supportive of the concept.

It is not hard to see why parents were keen to get their children into the school in Sheffield, which opened with its initial intake last year. The place crackles with creativity and optimism, while the pupils are enthusiastic and smartly turned out. 'Parents say wow!

They like it here because they want their kids to get a job, ' says the principal Nick Crew.

'They can see the rigour.'

Crew, 48, knows all about the need to adapt to changing economic circumstances.

He began his career in the coal industry in the 1980s with an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, before the decline of the industry prompted him to get a degree and move into education. …

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