Lynne Sedgmore called for a review of the drive for more UTCs in light of the second UTC closure, and here she considers what problems might be affecting the programme.

The news of the failure of another UTC, this time in the Black Country, may tempt some FE observers to indulge in schadenfreude.

It would be understandable given the way in which pioneers of the UTC movement crowed about high profile links with universities and systematically downplayed the practical support of FE colleges.

It is particularly understandable given the hubristic comments of some of their more high profile backers on what these newcomers could teach FE about vocational pedagogy or links with industry. It would be wrong to gloat however, since the failure represents another blow to technical and vocational education that we can ill afford.

Although only two UTCs have closed, many are struggling and several having to be rescued, often by a local college. There are several reasons specific to UTCs that help explain these failures.

As institutions they are generally too small; they are often poorly integrated into the local provider ecology (though this was not the case at Walsall) and they rely heavily on support from employers which can be fickle and promise more in advance than is subsequently delivered.

The main reason, however, is that delivering high quality vocational education in England is nowhere near as easy as some UTC enthusiasts seemed to think.

UTCs (and of course studio schools) are assailed by the same factors that make life difficult for FE colleges. There is, for example, the rhetorical support from all parties for higher level skills which unintentionally, but effectively, denigrates learning for lower status occupations — bricklaying, hairdressing or care.

Delivering high quality vocational education in England is nowhere near as easy as some UTC enthusiasts seemed to think

There is the determination by politicians, in the face of the evidence, to characterise our vocational education system as broken, thereby justifying yet another bout of destabilising ‘reform’.

There is the wilful disregard of the consequences for public perceptions of stripping vocational qualifications from school league tables in the name of reintroducing ‘rigour’. There is the confusion in the minds of the general public and most employers engendered by constantly inventing new organisational forms rather than building on what people know and trust.

Initial vocational education suffers disproportionately from the bizarre underfunding of the 16 to 19 phase compared with the rest of secondary education.

Although post-16 institutions are more badly affected, a fully-recruited UTC would still have half its year groups funded at the lower rate compared with two years out of seven for an 11 to 18 school. If it chose to educate those over the age of 18 it would experience a further reduction in the unit of resource.

UTCs, like colleges, must struggle against the lack of independent and impartial careers advice in many schools. A high profile launch helps, but in the long run it is hard to make headway against the default assumption that bright kids go into the sixth form.

UTCs, like colleges, also suffer from the policy confusion around apprenticeships. Government cannot make up its mind whether apprenticeships are a route to highly skilled occupations or the answer to youth unemployment and in seeming at times to advocate both the message to young people and parents is muddied.

At the same time the single-minded obsession of policymakers with apprenticeships is damaging to other aspects of vocational education.

Even where it is visible it is not clear whether it is an alternative to an apprenticeship, a preparation for one or a pathway that offers a choice of progression opportunities.

I’m really sad therefore that the hard work and enthusiasm that went into the development of the Black Country UTC has come to nought.

I fear, however, that unless any further expansion of UTCs is rooted in partnership and not unnecessary competition there will be further setbacks to come.

If we really want to encourage a high quality vocational route for 14 to 18-year-olds UTC enthusiasts need to work closely with those FE colleges who are also working to provide vocational qualifications to young people. The best chance of success is through collaboration.