Hackney University Technical College (UTC) revealed this week low recruitment from September meant it would be closing for good the following academic year. It prompted tough criticism from 157 Group executive director Lynne Sedgmore, so Neil Patterson looks at the recruitment issues facing UTCs.

As a fellow UTC principal, the news that Hackney UTC is due to close due to low recruitment in year 10 is a great disappointment.

I’m sure that the governors, partners and staff worked tirelessly to promote the UTC but it appears, in this case, it has not been enough.

Recruiting from the age of 14 is a challenge, but it’s central to the vision for UTCs and every day at Silverstone UTC I see my students flourishing because of this.

For a young person who knows where their interests lie, starting at 14 means they can learn in an environment where they can see the relevance of their studies and any risk of disengagement can be avoided.

By starting at 14 they get a head start in their technical education and are ready to enroll onto higher-level qualifications at 16. So, what lessons can be learned from Hackney UTC and how can other UTCs overcome the challenges of recruiting at 14?

My experience is that there are three factors that can make a significant difference to recruitment at 14.  First, how truly distinctive is the specialism? Is it something that local schools claim to offer as well?

Hackney UTC’s main specialism in digital technologies was supported with industry-standard equipment, quite different from what a student might experience in a school. It had the deep support of employers who set projects for the students and worked closely with them. However, many schools promote their digital credentials and it can be hard for parents to understand the differences if they don’t have a technical background.

At Silverstone our specialisms in business and technical events management and high performance engineering are closely linked to our main sponsor. Other schools are simply unable to provide the same curriculum, links with industry, or learning experience. This means we have a distinct offer, it’s not easily to replicate and it doesn’t overlap with the local schools’ provision.

Second, what are the schools in the local area like? In Hackney most schools are judged to be good or outstanding and there are sufficient places. This makes the local area very stable and it’s harder for a new institution to gain a foothold.

Third, recruitment to year 10 is much simpler, and less costly, when the local authority and secondary schools are supportive. I know this varies a great deal and can be one of the biggest barriers to successful recruitment in year 10.

Schools and local authorities have a duty to tell students about the UTC but there is little incentive, particularly if the current provision is not under pressure. This can make building the necessary links with primary and secondary schools and with the local authority a challenge.

In Northamptonshire both Daventry UTC and Silverstone have had support from the county council. This year this has included its writing to 7,000 known year nine households.

At Silverstone we secured close to 100 applications and year 10 is now over-subscribed for September. We’re not alone in being oversubscribed — Elstree, The JCB Academy, Sheffield, Liverpool Life Sciences and other UTCs are proving they can attract many students at year 10 despite the challenges.

Prior to joining Silverstone UTC I was chief engineer at McLaren Automotive where I worked for 14 years. My experience in business shows that it is never plain sailing from the first day of operation.

Any new product or initiative needs investment and time to be successful. Ultimately, I wish it had been financially viable for Hackney UTC to continue as I think it really did have the potential to achieve a great deal.