Ministers must not abandon UTCs

Written by: David Harbourne | Published:
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Negative headlines about those University Technical Colleges that have closed must not frighten ministers into abandoning a programme that is proving life-changing for some students, says David Harbourne


I was recently contacted by a second-year journalism student at Sheffield University. His name is Oliver. He knew I was writing a book about University Technical Colleges and asked if he could interview me for an article he was writing.

I remembered Oliver. I met him when I visited the JCB Academy in Staffordshire. I was researching my book – University Technical Colleges: The first ten years – and arranged to meet a group of year 13 students to hear their views on the UTC curriculum, links with employers, and where they thought they would be in 10 years’ time.

Two were applying for engineering apprenticeships, another had been offered a business apprenticeship at JCB’s nearby factory, and a fourth hoped to join the Royal Navy.

For his part, Oliver was planning to study English at university, with a view to becoming a journalist. With no prompting from me, he added: “The English and maths teachers here are exceptional, and I’ve been inspired by them. I know that’s quite a cheesy thing to say, but I have.”

At other UTCs, I met students whose aims include running a charity in East Africa, becoming a teacher, and in more than one case, training to be a chef. One very articulate 16-year-old told me her experience at a UTC was great preparation for the hospitality industry because she’d learned how to solve problems, communicate effectively, work under pressure and build teams.

That said, the majority of UTC students do pursue STEM pathways when they leave, mainly through higher education and apprenticeships.

Figures collected from UTCs by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust show that 55% of 18-year-olds leaving UTCs in 2021 went into higher education. Of these, 70% chose a STEM course. A further 19% of 18-year-old leavers started an apprenticeship (BDET, 2022). That is more than three times the national average – only of 6% of young people across England start an apprenticeship at the age of 18.

Furthermore, nearly two-thirds (63%) of UTCs students who opted for an apprenticeship started at Higher or Degree Apprenticeship level, which is more three times the national average (20%).

A few years later, UTC alumni can be found in responsible positions across industry and the public sector. While researching my book, I spoke to an engineer working for Bentley, a bio-engineer, a CAD technician, a quality assurance team leader, and a process performance analyst at the European Space Agency, among others. All of them said the UTC curriculum prepared them well for their chosen careers – in fact, they felt they were better prepared than their peers both at university and in the workplace.

For me, the measure of the UTC movement’s success does not lie just in exam results or even in destination data. The missing piece of the jigsaw is what comes next. We already have some evidence of that, and the coming years will provide growing evidence that UTC alumni go on to achieve great things in their lives and careers.

I was involved with UTCs almost from the outset and I instinctively favour their ethos and concept. I appreciate that not everyone shares my view. The thrust of Michael Gove’s agenda was on a broad academic curriculum up to the age of 16, not on the kind of specialisation offered by UTCs. Subsequent secretaries of state have reinforced the idea that students should choose between academic and technical paths at 16, not sooner.

Personally, I have always believed that early specialisation works brilliantly for some young people and that our education system ought to be able to embrace a range of needs and opportunities.

The so-called “increased flexibility pilots” of the early 2000s made the case very well. Unfortunately, however, they were replaced by unwieldy Diploma qualifications that were swept aside when the political pendulum swung back towards an academic curriculum and the EBacc.

I am not blind to the problems faced in the early years of the UTC movement, either. Some opened in the wrong place. Many faced significant recruitment and financial challenges before finding their feet. Some had to close. I tell these stories in my book too, because it’s vital to understand not just what worked, but also what didn’t go well – and why.

What about the next 10 years? When Oliver interviewed me recently, he asked me to identify the biggest risk facing UTCs in the next decade. “That’s easy,” I said. “Ministers. They come, they go. Any one of them could look at UTCs and decide – enough.”

In my opinion, that would be a terrible decision. Today, UTCs have finally achieved what might be called critical mass. The BDET reports that student numbers are rising by 10% a year (BDET, 2021), destinations are excellent, and there is growing evidence of the impact they make on young people’s future prospects.

As I said to Oliver, they deserve not just to survive, but to thrive.

  • David Harbourne is the author of University Technical Colleges: The first ten years, published by University of Buckingham Press. He is research director at the Edge Foundation and senior education advisor at the Baker Dearing Educational Trust.


Further information & resources

  • BDET: The number of students on roll at UTCs across the country has increased by 10% this September compared with last year, 2021: https://bit.ly/3so2Jrw
  • BDET: University Technical Colleges: Destinations 2021, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3hmaPdZ


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