Hackney University Technical College (UTC) is to shut at the end of 2014/15 because of low recruitment numbers — just 29 out a target of 75 pupils signed up for September. Dr Lynne Sedgmore looks at whether the UTC project as a whole is actually the problem.

I have been working in FE Colleges for 34 years and have seen many, many initiatives come and go — some of value, others purely political vanity projects.

I have never been opposed to FE colleges being rattled and shaken by politicians, learners or stakeholders. It is vital that we constantly prove our worth over and over again — that comes with the territory when in charge of taxpayers’ money.

What does pain me however, is when new ideas are born out of ideology, a limited evidence base and, it seems, an almost wilful determination to prove that FE colleges have failed.

This view seems still to have currency despite the rich evidence that FE is a huge success on many fronts, and has been for many, many years.

In this context I find it sad (though not surprising) that the very day after a commons debate on vocational education, during which the Edge Foundation was praised profusely and MPs queued up to announce a new University Technical College (UTC) in their constituency, we hear that the Hackney UTC is closing down. It will have only been open for three years.

Despite considerable hype in national and local media inspectors had made wide ranging criticisms of its performance and recruitment remained well below target.

This follows poor reports at other UTCs, serious problems of under-recruitment across the country and the Bedfordshire UTC being in such a state that an FE college was brought in to help sort it out.

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 anything we have ever done or achieved?

What should be our response to the proposals from the Labour Party to open 100 UTCs across the country to solve the problems of technical and vocational education?

Sadly our only option is to grit our teeth and help policy makers dig themselves out of a hole of their own making.

We need to help because at the heart of the UTC proposals is a good idea — that young people can be energised by learning in a setting that demonstrates the relevance of their studies to the world of work; that learning with state of the art technical facilities, from staff with recent industrial experience and with the strong engagement of employers boosts motivation and drives quality.

We know this because it happens every day in FE colleges up and down the country.

These ideas are too important to be allowed to fail simply because impatient politicians, anxious to claim credit for something new, set up fragile institutions that are not always fit for purpose.

In a world of rational policy making we would have to ask why universities should be asked to take the lead in this area when they know little about the teaching of 14 to 18-year-olds; why are UTCs being set up as tiny institutions without the scale to weather variations in recruitment or deliver financial economies; why are they set up as free standing entities without the opportunities for progression upwards or across disciplines; why are they essentially mono-technics, lacking the social and intellectual benefits of learning alongside other students from other sectors?

Alas the answer, as we know only too well, is that policy making in England is far from rational.

FE colleges, built around the same core philosophy as UTCs, were nevertheless not involved in policy formulation and only grudgingly engaged at the implementation stage.

All we can do with this, as with other political playthings is stand by and catch them when they fall.