The origins of the Specialist Schools movement in England go back to a conference on youth unemployment in January 1986, organised by the author on behalf of the Centre for Policy Studies, the leading Conservative think tank at that time, at the request of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher was concerned at the very high level of youth unemployment and wanted to hear from leading industrialists what could be done about this problem. The conference was held at the House of Lords and was attended by sixty heads of major industrial, commercial and financial enterprises, and senior civil servants as well as Lord Young of Graffham, then the secretary of state for employment. At the time, 3 million British workers were unemployed with almost a third of 16

year-olds being neither in education, training or employment. No speaker suggested that the high level of unemployment could be reduced by the government spending large sums to subsidise the creation of more jobs. For example, Larry Tindale, the chairman of Investors in Industry (3i) said that employment is the outcome of business, not its reason. The conference believed the role of central government was to create the conditions in which free enterprise could flourish, including giving priority to reducing inflation, lowering interest rates and wherever possible, reducing unnecessary government expenditure and regulation. There was, however, unanimity on one particular need for increased government

action – the need to create a more skilled workforce by improving schools with a vocational focus. At that time, 45 per cent of all English schoolchildren left school at age 16 without one or more traditional O-level pass or its equivalent. The conference recommended that the government establish 100 directly funded

technology secondary schools supported by industry, which would focus on both raising overall educational standards and improving the technical skills of school leavers, so that they would be more likely to obtain employment.1