UTCs running half-empty amid student recruitment difficulties

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Of the 58 university technical colleges (UTCs) that have opened, 10 have now closed, while those remaining are running at half empty having struggled to recruit enough students.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) this week has thrown fresh doubt on the future of the UTCs, which have cost the tax-payer £792 million since 2010.

UTCs were set up under the coalition government and are a type of free or academy school that is intended to work closely with employers to deliver technical education courses for students aged mainly 14 to 19.

However, the schools have struggled to recruit, with the starting age of 14 being considered one of the key barriers.

The NAO finds that as of January 2019, there were 13,572 students attending the – 45 per cent of the maximum capacity of 29,934.

The report states: “UTCs tend to recruit students to start GCSE and A level and equivalent courses. As courses typically take two years, it takes time for UTCs to build up their numbers.

However, they have also struggled to attract students at age 14, partway through the normal period of secondary education.”

Furthermore, there have been on-going concerns over the finances of many UTCs. In 2016, the NAO reported that the then Education Funding Agency had assessed 22 of 47 UTCs as being at risk due to financial concerns. And in this latest report, the NAO warns that the UTCs’ cumulative deficits have since risen from £3.5 million in 2014/15 to £7.7 million in 2017/18, when 14 of the 32 UTC academy trusts reported cumulative revenue deficits.

The £792 million price tag of the UTCs includes the usual per-pupil funding as well as £680 million in capital grants for land, buildings and equipment and £62 million in revenue grants.

In terms of educational outcomes, the NAO points out that UTCs outperform other secondary schools when it comes to the proportion of students progressing onto Apprenticeships.

However, UTCs perform worse when it comes to more traditional higher education routes.

And in terms of standards, Ofsted has rated 52 per cent of the UTCs as good or outstanding compared with 76 per cent of all secondary schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) is still committed to the UTC programme and launched a three-year improvement programme in September 2017. This included encouraging UTCs to join academy trusts for better support and becoming more open to UTCs that want to realign their age range more closely to other secondary schools in their areas.

Commenting on the report, Meg Hillier MP, chair of the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, said: “£792 million pounds has been spent but UTCs are running under capacity, often perform less well than other secondary schools and just under half of those inspected either require improvement or are inadequate.

“UTCs were set up to improve technical education but 17 per cent of UTCs that opened have since closed, leaving hard-pressed local authorities to find alternative places for the students affected. This report provides further evidence as to why the DfE is my top department of concern.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also said that trying to set up 14 to 19 institutions in a system where the entry points are typically at 11 and 16 was “always going to prove challenging”.

He added: “The result has been the closure of several University Technical Colleges with resulting disruption to staff and students, doubts over the future sustainability of other UTCs, and an eye-watering bill for the taxpayer.

“The on-going efforts to support these institutions are welcome but this is now a case of making the best out of a bad situation.

“There is merit in providing these 14 to 19 programmes of study but the government could have achieved this objective simply by working with existing further education colleges, many of which have a long tradition of taking students at 14.

“Instead it has failed to properly fund further education while spending scarce resources on the UTC programme despite the manifest difficulties with this approach.”


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