Schools that nobody really wants?

University Technology Colleges (UTCs) for 14-19 year olds, were established during Michael thGove’s period as Education Secretary but are most associated with Lord (Kenneth) Baker, the creator of the original ten subject national curriculum under Mrs Thatcher, but now a campaigner for better vocational education. Baker argued that Britain’s economic difficulties and low rates of productivity have been due to a shortage of technical skills and that it should adopt the German model of different types of schools with different types of curriculum for different types of students. This didn’t fit easily with Gove’s ‘grammar school education for all’ approach and it’s said the two had a strained relationship.

But UTCs have not been the success that Baker intended them to be, as Gove recently acknowledged in his Times column. Only 48 are open, just two more are planned for 2018, several have closed, many have experienced recruitment difficulties and a number have failed Ofsted inspections or been embroiled in financial scandals.   At a time when the current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening and outgoing Ofsted boss Michael Wilshire have called for its expansion, why is the UTC initiative running out of steam?

There are in fact many reasons why 14 rather than 11 would be a better age to transfer to a new school, particularly with the majority of young people staying in full-time education till 18, but in the absence of this and with high stakes testing remaining at 16, parents have been reluctant to allow children to transfer from a secondary school where they have become settled. It isn’t clear either how UTCs will fit with the proposed Post-16 Skills Plan where those students not following the academic route through to university will be encouraged to transfer to further education colleges at the end of Year 11.

While there may have been some justification for technical schools in the immediate post-war years –Baker argues that there were never enough of them –there  is much less of a case now, as many ‘middle’ or technician level jobs have been ‘hollowed out’ and if they do continue to exist, are likely to be filled by the excess of graduates. Many employer organisations also argue that future workers  need ‘generic’ and ‘soft’ skills, rather than specialised instruction for jobs that are likely to change, if not disappear completely.

There is no clear evidence that UTCs in themselves have significantly improved employment prospects –though 29% of leavers are reported to have started apprenticeships (much higher than in other types of schools) this is still very low compared to the German technical/vocational schools which the UTCs have sought to emulate, but which have a more direct link with local employment plans. Local employers may continue to sponsor UTCs but this doesn’t mean that they are directly involved with them.

In the run up to the launch of the UTC programme, Baker called for an education that encouraged pupils to ‘get their hands dirty’, but the
alternative curriculum which  UTCs  were supposed to offer has been restricted by  Ebacc and Progress 8 requirements.  As a consequence UTC education has been ‘applied’ as much as ‘practical’ and has continued to be based on GCSEs, which themselves have become more academic and more traditional. Like in other schools, those that are able to are just as likely to continue on to university. (44% are recorded as doing this, higher than in state schools generally)

As a result, in an increasingly differentiated and competitive schools market, UTCs have found it difficult to maintain a distinct brand, becoming schools that nobody really wants.

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