Open your wallets, construction industry, because a network of city academies is the only hope we have of halting the relentless march of the soft degrees ...

Gordon Brown’s battle with Tony Blair for the leadership of the Labour Party is doing nothing to stop the relentless decline in the performance of our public services. Education in particular is suffering from Blair’s government-by-weekly-initiative and who knows what Brown will do with it?

I believe the deterioration of our state education system is one of the principal causes of construction skills shortages.

Ruth Lea, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, wrote: “More worrying is the persistence of basic skills deficiencies, including basic literacy and numeracy skills and fundamental labour market mismatches. (Daily Telegraph, 26 August).

“How much better it would be if more young people were properly guided at school into high-quality vocational training, such as plumbing, rather than second-rate higher education courses at the end of which they have little to show but debt.

“The massive expansion of HE has not just resulted in a plethora of dubious degree courses. It has also undermined post-school vocational training by directing bright young people away from practical courses. They have been encouraged to regard vocational courses as a poor second best to ‘uni’.”

The question is, how can we convince new generations that a career in construction is rewarding, secure and most importantly cool, when the state education system is telling them the opposite?

The question is, how can we convince new generations that a career in construction is secure, rewarding and cool?

My distinguished fellow columnist Sir Michael Latham has been explaining (4 August and 6 October) how CITB-Construction Skills helps the industry to recruit and train. I have supported the CITB’s aims since it started. Without it, formal training would have collapsed years ago. But we need radical new ideas to counter the powerful sirens of the soft degrees. And what better idea than one of Tony Blair’s favourite initiatives, city academies. The prime minister hoped to open 200 by 2010 but currently only about 50 are operating. Finding new sponsors will be more difficult now that honours are off the agenda. The construction industry can help by sponsoring a nationwide network of Construction City Academies (CCAs).

So how do these CCAs work? First, each academy needs a sponsor, in this case the CITB. The sponsor invests £2m in a charitable trust to which government will add up to £28m. That total of £30m is used by the trust to pay the capital cost of new buildings and equipment. All ongoing running costs of the CCA are paid for by central and local government funding, at levels matching those of similar local schools.

For their £2m investment, sponsors get to appoint a majority of the governors and have broad responsibility for ethos, strategic direction and curriculum. Sponsors are encouraged to challenge traditional thinking on how schools are run and how staff should be employed and incentivised.

Construction employers through active support of their local CCA could then ensure that real standards of achievements are raised so that CCA leavers are literate, numerate and well equipped for our diverse industry. We could follow Germany’s 50-year example of providing vocational training for 16-18 year olds within the CCA. Technical sixth forms could become the norm.

Through our CCAs, Real Construction could train the high-quality engineers, construction managers and architects we need, preparing them for appropriate degree courses. CCAs could link with or replace the threatened national construction skills academy at Bircham Newton. If we were in control of “our own” academies there are all sorts of other positive innovations we could introduce.

Despite the savings that would be made from, say, transferring craft courses from colleges to CCAs, this initiative will cost us more than at present. A radical review of how and from whom the CITB levy is raised is needed. I propose to discuss that challenge next time, provided, that is, that Gordon Brown hasn’t scrapped the city academies programme as part of his de-Blairification.