UTCs facing key recruitment and accountability problems

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Capacity challenge: UTCs combine technical and practical learning with academic education for 14 to 19-year-olds, but some are struggling to recruit students (Image: iStock)

A new report is warning that UTCs are struggling due to inappropriate accountability measures and difficulty recruiting pupils at age 14. Pete Henshaw takes a look...

Headline accountability measures are failing to recognise the breadth of curriculum being offered by university technical colleges (UTC) and should be reviewed, academics have said.

A report published this week has concluded that the government needs to do more to help UTCs establish themselves if it remains committed to the concept.

UTCs are academy schools for 14 to 19-year-olds where students are able to combine technical and practical learning with academic study. At the start of the 2016/17 academic year, there were 48 UTCs open in England.

The report, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), warns that, on average, UTC students are performing worse than their peers in their previous schools according to the headline key stage 4 accountability measures – namely Attainment 8 and Progress 8.

However, some of this worse performance may be because “the headline accountability measures do not recognise the composition or breadth of curriculum offered by UTCs”.

The report adds: “In addition, UTCs are only responsible for students in two of the five years that they spend in secondary education, but are being held to account for all five years.”

Student recruitment is also a key challenge for UTCs, the report warns, with none of the 48 schools currently operating at capacity. Furthermore, many of the UTCs that have been open for at least three years saw a decline in student numbers in 2016/17.

The report adds: “Three out of the 37 which have been open for at least two years are at or above 75 per cent capacity. Conversely, almost two-thirds of these 37 UTCs are operating at below 50 per cent capacity, which is unlikely to be sustainable in the medium term.

“Given the context – that new schools often have difficulties establishing themselves, that UTCs are trying to attract students at a non-traditional age for moving school, and the reported lack of proper careers advice and information about options – it should not be surprising that some UTCs are struggling to recruit students.”

It comes after a report from think-tank IPPR earlier this month also highlighted the recruitment problems facing UTCs, warning that seven UTCs have closed or announced that they are to close since 2011. It also predicted that more will close in the coming years because of a shortage of pupils.

The government changed the law last year, introducing a statutory responsibility for all local authorities to write to parents with children in year 9 to inform them about the opportunities available at age 14. It is expected that this will have some impact on pupil recruitment in UTCs.

On accountability, the report recommends that the government “urgently examines” the headline accountability measures to see if they should be adapted or complemented to better assess UTC performance.

It also recommends that students attending UTCs should be “independently assessed” at the point of entry so that progress can be properly measured.

On student recruitment, it says that more work should be done to see if there are “other disincentives in the system”, including the impact on schools’ funding, which may be hindering UTCs from recruiting pupils.

The report adds: “Unless UTCs get more support from government to overcome some of the inherent challenges they face, we believe they will continue to struggle and be vulnerable to closure. Over time, this may damage the credibility of the technical/vocational sector. If the government is not prepared to provide this support, it might be best for it to reconsider the rationale and purpose of UTCs.”

Lesley Duff, NFER’s director of research, said: “UTCs have attracted a lot of negative comment since they were first introduced. It is clear that UTCs have had a challenging start and the situation for many is unlikely to be sustainable in the medium term without more support.

“However, the wider context in terms of the scale of the challenge UTCs face in trying to recruit students at age 14 and the extent to which the headline accountability measures fairly assess their performance delivering a curriculum with a substantial skills focus, is often overlooked. If the government wants UTCs to work, it needs to give them more support.”

A statement from the Baker Dearing Trust, the charity that oversees the UTCs programme, welcomed the recommendations.

It said: “Many of the recommendations are already being addressed with the Department for Education. We look forward to working with them on the programme of reform of technical education as announced in the Queen’s speech.

“There is no doubt that the government is committed to supporting UTCs. Since Justine Greening was appointed education secretary we have received a lot more help. She has visited UTCs, which her predecessors never did. She increased the funding for each UTC and has changed the law to make recruitment at 14 much easier.”


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription