Kenneth Baker: ‘We’re in a golden age of architecture, but we’re missing good technical colleges’
Student Shows 2014: Interview with Kenneth Baker
A revolutionary new route for young people to enter architecture is emerging, if its principal advocate is to be believed.
Many people will remember Kenneth Baker as Margaret Thatcher’s formidable education secretary between 1986 and 1989, during which time he pushed through reforms including the National Curriculum, school league tables and the first academies (then called city technology colleges).
Thirty years later Baker - now a Tory peer - has picked up the baton again, and is determined to make a success of his latest initiative to boost technical and vocational education. Baker is co-founder and chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which was set up to develop and promote university technical colleges (UTCs). UTCs are sponsored by universities and employers and teach a combined technical and academic curriculum to 14 to 18-year-olds.
The first 50 UTCs - part-funded by the Treasury - have been approved and are due to open by 2016, and 17 of those began teaching last September, including in Greenwich, Buckinghamshire and Liverpool.
UTCs are being touted as one solution to high levels of youth unemployment in the UK and a growing skills shortage facing many industries, in particular, the built environment.
According to Baker, UTCs could also be the first step to reforming - or at least diversifying - architectural training to build greater resilience into the profession.
Baker welcomed AJ to his cluttered office at the Baker Dearing Trust in Westminster.
Now 80, he is still busy shaking up the educational establishment. ‘We are in a golden age of architecture,’ he begins. ‘We are building better structures now than we have done for decades. But the profession is missing good technical colleges.
‘During the Industrial Revolution people “trained the intelligent hand”. We should do the same. It is by being practical, by making things, that people become imaginative.’
Baker developed the UTCs concept with the late Sir Ron Dearing, who had chaired several government commissions on education. Baker’s own education - St Paul’s School followed by Oxford University - is elite by anyone’s standards but his roots are more modest. Born in Newport, south Wales, both his grandfathers were Welsh dockworkers. After attending a state primary in Lancashire, followed by two years at grammar school, his father’s work in the civil service took the young Baker to London and eventually to a job with Shell and later as chief executive of a clothing company that supplied Marks & Spencer. He was elected as Conservative MP for Twickenham in 1968.
He is clearly determined to fight any residual prejudices against technical-based education. ‘We used to have good technical colleges [in the 1980s],’ he says, ‘but many of them closed due to snobbery. There was a perception of the “trades” as dirty jobs and greasy rags. This is changing, as people realise the importance of industry to economic recovery and the extent of the skills shortage that threatens it.’
The current route to becoming an architect is an academic one but equipping budding architecture students with hands-on experience of construction and building design at an early age will give them a better chance of securing a job when they qualify, Baker argues. He says the building sector needs 45,000 new workers each year until 2020 and is adamant that UTCs can help to plug the gap. So far, four UTCs specialise in the built environment. Buckinghamshire UTC is backed by Taylor Wimpey and focuses on housebuilding while the Laing O’Rourke sponsored Greater Manchester UTC, due to open in Oldham in September, will focus on structural engineering.
At UTC Reading, backed by Network Rail, students are working with transport planners at Peter Brett Associates to design a new vision for the area around Reading Station. Such hands-on experience of a live project is crucial to the UTCs’ approach: they are encouraged to approach assignments as they would a paid job.
‘There is minimal class disruption because we are treating them like adults,’ explains Baker. Another advantage is that students develop a cross-disciplinary understanding of a construction task.
He continues: ‘Many of the UTCs seek to foster skills that go beyond bricklaying. The industry needs more people who can cope with sophisticated design briefs.’
The college with the most relevant offer for aspiring architects is Royal Greenwich UTC, which is backed by Transport for London and contractor Wates. It opened in September in a £10 million Walters & Cohen-designed building in Woolwich catering to 600 students. As well as taking compulsory GCSEs in English, Maths, science and ICT, students can gain technical qualifications (BTEC Level 3 and City and Guilds Level 3 diplomas) in subjects including Construction and the Built Environment. The course teaches modules in building design, planning, building information modelling (BIM) and sustainability. This year’s cohort is designing and constructing a pavilion for students to meet, eat and study on site, and students will be offered work placements on
Baker says the UTC has a strong push towards architecture and is designed to appeal to girls, who are underrepresented in the profession and the wider industry. Forty of the 70 students taking construction-related courses at Royal Greenwich are girls, and many are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Baker hopes the UTC’s inclusive approach will help to increase diversity in a profession where the cost and length of training can be prohibitive.
However, he concedes a UTC curriculum is not equivalent to an architecture degree. UTC leavers would have to complete further study to qualify (although they could become architectural technicians with BTEC or other accredited technical qualifications, which are recognised by higher education providers).
The UTCs will also have to work hard to persuade the industry that their education offers a viable route into architecture. Besides Walters & Cohen, no architectural practices have yet lent their backing and the RIBA - whose head of education David Gloster says architecture students must ‘investigate the true depth and complexity’ of architecture - remains sceptical of UTCs.
But, ever faithful to the cause, Baker insists the grounding UTCs offer will prepare students for the next phase of their training. It will also help them to make more informed choices, effectively ‘weeding out’ students likely to drop out of an architecture degree years later.
He rejects the suggestion that a move away from a purely academic route into architecture could produce a generation of overly practical, unimaginative architects. Indeed, Royal Greenwich UTC principal Mike Sharpe insists instilling creativity in his students is key to their success.
Baker wants to open 500 UTCs by 2020 and claims to have cross-party support to ensure the upcoming election does not derail his vision. When we meet, the government is finalising a ministerial reshuffle that sees education secretary Michael Gove, among others, removed from post. Gove caused uproar among architects after he blamed them for wasting taxpayers’ money on the Building Schools for the Future programme and later scrapped it.
Baker says he is unaware of any row between Gove and architects but disagrees with him on the importance of buildings in terms of learning outcomes.
‘Buildings do matter: it’s always nice to be taught in comfortable surroundings but, if you are educating children about the importance of good buildings, it’s crucial.’ This is a positive view and one that, hopefully, UTC-educated architects will share.