Hackney UTC closure prompts tough 157 Group leader criticism for Lord Baker project

Former Education Secretary Lord Baker’s University Technical College (UTC) project has come under fire from the 157 Group boss after Hackney UTC announced it was to close.

The East London UTC opened in September 2012, and filled 77 per cent of its 100 pupil places in the first year — but it is to shut its doors for good after 2014/15 with just 29 out of its target 75 pupils having applied to join in September.

News it is to close emerged in the Hackney Gazette yesterday and follows reports of low recruitment levels at other UTCs. It also comes just weeks after Education Secretary Michael Gove asked Bedford College to take over Central Bedfordshire UTC after it had been branded inadequate by Ofsted.

The mounting UTC issues have prompted tough questioning of the project from 157 Group executive director Dr Lynne Sedgmore with numbers set to swell to 50 from the current 17 by 2017/18.

She told FE Week: “How should we in FE react to this news when we are constantly being told that UTCs are the new way forward, vastly superior to any thing we have ever done or achieved? … Sadly our only option is to grit our teeth and help policy makers dig themselves out of a hole of their own making.” [Click here for Dr Sedgmore’s full expert piece on the UTC issue]

However, a UTCs spokesperson insisted that “many UTCs are going from strength to strength”.

Hackney UTC had been rated as requires improvement (a grade three inspection result) by Ofsted in January, and was hit with further disappointment just a month later with the sudden and unexplained departure of principal Annie Blackmore.

Ofsted went back for monitoring visit in May, however, and later noted progress was being made, concluding: “Senior leaders and governors are taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement.”

Anthony Painter, governors’ chair at Hackney UTC, said: “It has become clear that provision commencing in Year 10 [age 14] rather than Year 12 [age 16] does not fit well in local circumstances unique to this project, where students are unlikely to change course until sixth form, resulting in unviable student numbers. Therefore, the Hackney UTC provision is being closed.”

It was one of three UTCs — and the first in London — to open in September 2012, with just the Black Country UTC, near Birmingham, having opened for the previous academic year.

Hackney UTC aimed to cater for local employment needs in nearby Old Street — the home of London’s digital industries, and known as Tech City — by specialising in health and digital industries training for 14 to 19-year-olds.

It is partnered with Hackney Community College (HCC) whose principal, Ian Ashman, told FE Week: “The need to provide specialist tech and media education is becoming increasingly evident; both for the benefit of local people and for the companies which need to hire skilled people, from diverse backgrounds.

“Based on the partnerships and experience of HCC and Hackney UTC, we can harness the support of the industry and the enthusiasm of the community to create a world-class hub of education and training designed for and by Tech City employers.”

The UTC project was the brainchild of Tory Lord Baker as a solution to the skills gap — and Staffordshire’s JCB Academy, which turned into a UTC in January last year, received a good rating from Ofsted last month.

However, some have struggled with recruitment, including the 150-pupil Central Bedfordshire UTC, which was just 30 per cent full for 2012/13, while the 480-pupil Black Country UTC, which in March also got a grade three Ofsted inspection result, was operating at 36 per cent capacity. The 540-pupil JCB Academy was 66 per cent full.

Despite the issues, the Labour party this month pledged to open a further 100 UTCs in the next parliament if it won next year’s general election, despite concerns raised by the Association of Colleges that UTCs “may not be the best response”.

A spokesperson for Lord Baker’s educational charity, the Baker Dearing Trust said the UTC’s issues with recruitment were “due to local circumstances unique to this [Hackney] project” and that no other UTCs were in danger of closing.

She added: “Many UTCs are going from strength to strength and some are now oversubscribed. For example, in London, Greenwich UTC opened in 2013 with almost 300 pupils. Interest in UTCs is strong and we have a further 33 in development.

“There are more than 500 employers and over 50 universities involved in the UTCs that are open or approved to open.”

A Hackney UTC spokesperson said students currently in year 10 would be able continue studying their GCSEs at the UTC, while year 11s who would have progressed to the UTC sixth form would be offered alternative provision at Hackney Community College. No new students will now be recruited.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We would like to thank the staff and the Hackney UTC Trust for their efforts to bring a high quality technical education to Hackney.

“The Hackney UTC Trust has asked that the school close at the end of August 2015 due to disappointing pupil recruitment. It is vital that every school delivers value for money and so we have accepted their request.

“Our priority now is working with the Trust to ensure pupils are able to complete courses they have started and receive the right support.”

Hackney UTCs partners — the University of East London and employers BT and Cisco — have said they will support plans for the area’s new hub.