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The big problem with University Technical Colleges

They’re hailed as the future of vocational learning... but some have run into trouble

10 September 2016

9:00 AM

10 September 2016

9:00 AM

Godwin’s law says that the longer an internet discussion continues, the more likely it is that a Nazism analogy will be used. Grammar school debates have their own law. At some point someone will say: ‘Grammars are fine, but do you also want more secondary moderns?’

It’s a fair point. At the height of their popularity, grammars gave an elite education to around 25 per cent of the population who passed the 11+ exam. Secondary moderns took in the remaining 75 per cent and typically struggled for it. Highly qualified teachers flock to schools with the smartest children. Poorer children, meanwhile, congregate in secondary moderns, and come with a higher likelihood of other issues: poor behaviour, malnutrition, and troubled families. (A stereotype, but borne out by data.) With equal funding, grammars flew: their results brilliant, their pupils off to university. Secondary moderns, meanwhile, became a byword for ‘sink school’.

There are fewer grammars now, and the remaining secondary moderns work hard for their pupils, but their lower results and inspection grades reveal their difficulties. So if grammars make a comeback, it is fair to ask what happens to everyone else. Now, grammar advocates have an answer: UTCs.

University Technology Colleges — UTCs for short — are schools for 14- to 19-year-olds, specialising in a vocation or trade while still delivering a broadly academic curriculum. Elstree UTC, for example, is attached to Elstree Studios, birthplace of Star Wars. Pupils study English, maths and science GCSEs, alongside a suite of specialist qualifications — photo-graphy, graphics, film studies. Pupils also spend a portion of time each week in hands-on activities.

Less glitz, more grunt is the JCB Academy — the first UTC — opened in Staffordshire in 2010 and specialising in engineering. Alongside their typical GCSEs, pupils study for an engineering qualification, encompassing systems control and manufacturing.

Both colleges are impressive and seem to offer an answer to the question of what to do with pupils who are ‘not academic’. But there is a problem. The most successful UTCs are not really for low-attaining pupils. They cream off high-performing ones who love their specialism. Elstree is more akin to the Sylvia Young Theatre School than a typical secondary modern.

Then there is the question of the relative popularity of different specialisms. Hackney UTC, for instance, had a ‘health specialism’. That sounds as if it was for aspiring doctors, but medicine requires a highly academic path before university. Instead, Hackney offered ‘health technologies’, which proved unalluring. It failed to attract enough pupils and closed after two years, along with its £3.3 million building.

Elstree school uniform: Pupils do photography, graphics and film studies as well as the regular subjects

It’s not alone. Since 2010, three other UTCs have closed (rough cost: £18 million), and two more are on financial warnings. All cite low numbers. An investigation by FE Week magazine found that 40 per cent of UTCs which opened between 2010 and 2013 saw their pupil numbers fall in the last academic year. Quality indicators are also not great. Just over 40 per cent of the latest batch of schools inspections were below ‘good’.

Advocates of the system have excuses to hand. First, UTCs must coax pupils in at the age of 14. By that time, most are settled in secondary school, and UTC leaders have complained about schools blocking them from advertising to pupils. Second, pupils who do change school typically do so because they are unhappy or pushed to change due to poor behaviour and low attainment. Such pupils do not make for good marketing material.

A better excuse is demography. Right now, the country has a historically low numbers of teenagers. In a few years a boom-cohort will hit, and those empty UTC places will be very useful. This might explain why the government is handing new financial packages to UTCs and encouraging them to join ‘multi–academy trusts’ — the charities which oversee most mainstream secondary schools in England. Being in a trust gives more financial stability and also enables direct marketing to pupils in the trust’s other schools.

There are fears that such a move could lead to separation of pupils by ability at age 11. From September 2017, pupils failing to achieve a national average score in their primary tests must re-sit the papers at secondary school. From the same year, the government also expects all pupils to be entered for a fleet of ‘rigorous’ GCSEs and will judge schools by their pupils’ scores. UTCs, however, will be exempt from this measure. So an enterprising headteacher might seek out the pupils more likely to fail these exams, and push their parents towards the trust’s innovative ‘vocational’ school down the road that can guarantee ‘a trade’ — and get the pupils’ results off their league table entry.

But UTCs cannot guarantee a trade. Separate buildings don’t suddenly mean kids can do physics, and jazzy specialisms don’t make it easy to find brilliant science teachers. We so desperately want vocational education to solve the problem of unhappy, poorly behaved or low-attaining children that we forget this basic logic. What these children actually need is intensive tutoring, smaller classes, mental health specialists and consistent rules from the adults in their lives. They don’t need £10 million buildings specialising in entrepreneurship. In some high-density areas, where there is a strong employer need in a specialism sufficiently attractive to an unusually high-attaining few, then UTCs will work. Everywhere else, we are in danger of recreating government-endorsed dumping grounds.

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