Lord Baker’s new book, 14-18: A New Vision for Education, sets out radical changes to the education system and includes contributions from several sector stakeholders. Maggie Galliers delivers her verdict on the book and evaluates the view laid out by Lord Baker.

The central idea in Lord Baker’s new book is that the English education system should be re-shaped around transfer ages of nine and 14.

Lord Baker has written three of the book’s chapters and has carefully chosen seven men as co-contributors.

Different authors have different viewpoints, but the common themes are that the current education system is excessively focused on academic achievement, that a strong technical alternative needs to be developed and that we can be confident in trusting 14-year-olds and their parents to make positive choices about their future.

Lord Baker goes further than his co-contributors in putting forward the wholesale re-organisation of the English school system, but he does not examine fully the practicalities or costs of this proposal so it is more a vision than a manifesto.

His proposition is a bold one given that the age ranges of 23,000 primary schools, 3,000 secondary schools and 300 colleges would have to change and the education estate would need to be transformed to accommodate three-tier education.

Lord Baker proposes four “pathways” at age 14, each taught in “self contained” institutions. While there is certainly merit in pathways post-14 which recognise, in the words of Lord Baker that “skills and knowledge are not mutually exclusive…they are mutually complementary”, there is a danger that, as with earlier reforms, this emphasis on structures could become a distraction from more important questions about what young people should learn, how they should be assessed and how they should be supported with their transition into adult life.

Although Lord Baker argues that pupils would choose between different education routes, the reality could be that the new 14-18 colleges would be making the choices and that local hierarchies between the technical, academic, sports and career colleges would begin to develop.

I came away from this book feeling that an opportunity had been missed. It’s interesting to hear new perspectives from a Harvard professor, a middle school head and a private school headmaster about 11 to 19 education, but I wondered why the book lacked other perspectives.

Several authors referred to Professor Alison Wolf’s reforms suggesting that they did not go far enough. It would have been good to have had a response from her. It would also have been more balanced to have had a stronger college perspective on the issues raised.

FE colleges have been the midwives of the university technical college movement, they educate more 16 to 18-year-olds than the school sector, and they were recently given power to enrol students directly at the age of 14.

Changes are needed, but my experience of reform is that it is best to carry people with you rather than impose reform.

The college staff I know are realistic about the need to raise standards and to adapt to the changing economy, but they are also frustrated at the constant policy and structural changes introduced by successive governments.

We have seen initiatives, programmes and qualifications come and go and while it is refreshing to see such a high profile push for a higher status technical route, the requirement for such wide ranging reorganisation based on an age break at 14 needs to be evaluated carefully.

This is why the Department for Education’s recent announcement about direct recruitment at 14 is so helpful. It allows a few colleges to build on what they have already done locally, but to do so in the knowledge that they will be properly funded for their work.

Kenneth Baker’s book is a useful addition to the argument, but it is not the final word.

Maggie Galliers, Association of Colleges president

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