Peter Wylie, Director of Education, Baker Dearing Educational Trust

For 150 years England has got technical education wrong and no political party can claim they have come up with a solution that works. The only Education Minister who had a policy for technical colleges was R A Butler but even he was not able to arrest their decline.

The trouble with technical education is that it is too early to start at 11 years old and too late at 16. Europe recognises the clear difference between upper and lower secondary at 14. Austria, which has the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe, stops their National Curriculum at 14 and has separate specialist 14-18 colleges covering the liberal arts, technical and practical training, and vocational studies. America is also moving to create post-14 specialist schools. Although transfer at 14 is not common in state schools in England, it has been working for independent schools very well.

UTCs offer a different approach to addressing the STEM-related skills gap backed by employers and a university. They offer an education that places equal value on academic, technical and practical learning. Unlike large FE Colleges they offer just one or two technical specialisms in top-end STEM subjects. These specialisms are directly linked to the needs of the local area and are decided by the employers who back the UTC.

But let’s face it the odds are stacked against UTCs, up to now they have had limited support from government and there is no incentive for the existing education system to support them. Contrary to popular belief UTCs are not “rivals” to schools and colleges. They simply do things differently. The UTC model is perfect for some learners but not for everyone. This is nothing to do with academic ability; instead it’s about self-aware and empowered students deciding that they are ready to progress towards their eventual careers.

The government’s new performance measures compare UTCs to traditional schools but this doesn’t make any sense. Young people can only join a UTC at the age of 14 not at 11 so UTCs have far less time to influence students’ progress scores, which are measured over five years. Moreover some of the essential technical and creative subjects that UTCs offer don’t receive scores in the Progress 8 measure.

Where a UTC closure has been announced financial pressures that stem from low pupil recruitment are generally the cause. At the GM UTC results were also clearly poor and this is not acceptable for any school. The key factors that lead to successful UTCs are profound employer engagement and really good leadership. There is no question that UTCs face serious challenges particularly in their first years of operation however as with all institutions strong leadership can make the difference between a school that fails and one that succeeds.

Michael Gove is wrong to criticise UTCs, he never liked them when he was in power and did little to support them. We are very proud of the outstanding destination data of UTCs. Last year we had 1,292 leavers at 18 but only five became NEET – unemployed. 44% went to university (national average 38%), 29% became apprentices (national average 8.4%). The unemployment rate for 18 year olds is unfortunately still 11.5%. For UTCs it is 0.5%. This represents a big saving for the Treasury.

UTCs have the backing of over 500 employers including Jaguar Land Rover, Fujitsu, The Royal Navy and Network Rail. They sit on the Board of Governors as well as offering challenges and engagement opportunities. We also know that students that attend UTCs say they prefer them to their previous schools.

The truth is we need do find a solution to our technical skills shortage in STEM and UTCs are one of the few types of institutions set up to help do this. More needs to be done to support the programme and fortunately Education Minister, Justine Greening is behind them.

With effect from 14th February local authorities will be legally obliged to write to all parents with children in Year 9 to provide information about local UTCs and other schools that recruit at 14. This will greatly increase awareness of UTCs and ensure that parents and young people know that they may change school at 14 if that is right for them. UTCs are not the problem- they are part of the solution to our technical skills shortage.

Peter Wylie, Director of Education, Baker Dearing Educational Trust

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