University Technical Colleges have not had a particularly good press of late.
Some UTCs have found it hard to recruit and retain young people. A handful have had to close. Others have had too variable performance,against accepted benchmarks receiving poor Ofsted ratings. Indeed, when judged against a range of criteria such as student recruitment, attainment outcomes, and closures / conversions to different school types, it is clear that the introduction of UTCs has been, lets say, challenging. But its important to get these challenges in their proper perspective. Arguably they are not operating on a level playing field, as Lord Baker, their strongest advocate, has pointed out. UTCs recruit students from age 14, which works against the grain of the current system and the government, frankly could have done more to help them establish themselves and to create an enabling environment in which they might have more easily thrived.
As far as performance is concerned, analysis from NFER suggests that (at least some) of the poor performance of UTCs, in the headline accountability measures, may be because the academic measures do not recognise the composition or breadth of curriculum offered by most UTCs. In addition, UTCs are only responsible for two of the five years that students spend in secondary education, but are being held to account for all five years, which doesn’t seem entirely fair.
The Principal of Silverstone UTC, Neil Patterson, recently blogged that Silverstone gets its pupils from 80 to 90 different schools: ‘We work hard to ensure school leaders know what we do. They are best placed to advise their students on whether UTC Silverstone offers the right education setting.’ But, he adds, ‘Sadly this approach doesn’t always work. All too often parents of students looking to join us describe the pressure their children are put under to stay at their current school, without consideration for their child’s abilities, interests or career ambitions.’ This is a common complaint. If a child moves, then the school loses the funding that goes with that child. So, schools have a vested interest in persuading that child to stay put. Whether or not that is in the childs interests.
Patterson continues ‘On the other side of the coin, parents of disruptive students often tell us that their child’s previous school advised them to apply to the UTC. These children faced permanent exclusion at their previous school. Those schools tell parents that we are better suited to their children because we are “hands on”. This concerns me a great deal because the reality is that most of their KS4 study is still the same, and while engineering might be an applied subject, there is not the level of “hands on” activity that most students are led to believe by school leaders who haven’t taken the time to find out about the UTC’
We also know that Careers guidance in some schools can be patchy and variable in quality and that there may well be what’s called ‘cognitive biases’ at play, when it comes to teachers (often unqualified for guidance work ) spelling out options that are open for girls, (ie STEM subjects and vocational subjects are sometimes ignored as viable options )so rather too often children are not getting access to good independent advice, guidance and information- whether that is related to UTCs, or other vocational and technical options.
Despite this as it happens, Silverstone is doing OK. UTC Silverstone has seen an increase in applications from 98 to 197 from just March to May this year
The government seems to have realized that it could have done more to ease the introduction of UTCs Earlier this year, the government made it a legal requirement that all local authorities should write to the parents of Year 9 children to tell them about their local UTC. Letters went out for the first time in Spring 2017. In addition, the government has legislated to entitle UTCs to go into local schools from September 2017 to explain to the students the type of education that UTCs offer. This may lead to a further significant increase in the rate of applications at KS4.
A new delivery model will always need time to bed in, as the academies programme has shown, more generally. So, it’s probably too early to judge UTCs. There is, rightly, pressure on them to raise their game and to to deliver, across the piece, better results, and to attract and retain more students. But they have had significant challenges to address, and recent changes should help them . Lets hope so because our vocational and technical offers for pupils lag far behind those on offer from our continental competitors.