University technical colleges – another expensive failure?

Martin Allen takes a look at the woes facing the programme to introduce technical schools sponsored by universities


What’s happened to University Technology Colleges – the 14-19 schools created by one time Secretary of State Kenneth (now Lord) Baker?

Citing ‘academic snobbery’ for the failure to establish proper technical education in this country, which he argues has caused skill shortages and contributed to further industrial decline, Baker has established  60 UTCs with  employer or university sponsorship. Yet they’ve been beset with problems – 10 already closing or being subsumed by other institutions.

While the idea of separate technical or vocational schools didn’t cut any ice with supporters of comprehensive education, ironically, the UTCs which  opened  from 2011 onward,  were not liked either by the then Education Minister, Michael Gove, who sought to impose an academic ‘grammar school’ curriculum across secondary education. It’s been suggested that Baker was only able to get the schools off the ground by direct appeals to David Cameron and George Osborne and by working with employment rather than educational agencies.

UTCs have found it difficult to recruit with many well below capacity. After trying to establish themselves in a new secondary school at 11, students (and parents) have not wanted to transfer.  Despite up to £120 million pounds being spent on establishing them, many UTCs  continue to receive poor Ofsted reports.  Neither (with a few exceptions) have UTCs been able to establish the really close links with employers they have wanted.

A further problem has been that because UTCs are state funded secondary schools (even if they  enjoy ‘Free School’ status),  their performance has been judged in terms of how well students perform in EBacc subjects and Progress 8  – in other-words in particular GCSEs. This, it’s argued, has limited the UTCs ability to offer a ‘real’  vocational alternative at Key Stage 4 – although there is clear evidence that UTC students still study more  ‘STEM’ subjects than they would elsewhere.

But the EBacc and Progress 8 restrictions  have now been reduced and instead, UTCs are also to be assessed in terms of ‘student destinations’. According to the Baker/Dearing Trust (which oversees them), those leaving a UTC at 18 are much more likely to take up employment and particularly apprenticeships, especially higher level –  and  much less likely to become ‘NEET’. Yet other studies have claimed UTCs experience high dropout rates before age 18, that students don’t make as much progress as they would elsewhere and that UTCs have lower pass rates than schools with similar intakes.

Yet according to the Trust’s own figures, while 1 in 4 UTC leavers  might start apprenticeships, far more ((just under 50%)  progress to higher education,  This is because of  the absence of employment opportunities for school leavers, particularly in the ‘middle’ or technician level jobs with which vocational qualifications have been associated.  On the contrary it’s academic qualifications, particularly at degree level that represent ‘hard currency’ in the labour market.  Like New Labour’s  General Diplomas and the T-Levels  to come, will UTCs be  another expensive failure?

This post originally appeared on Martin Allen’s blog, Education, Economy and Society.