Six out of 30 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are operating at up to just a third full — with two running at no more than 14 per cent capacity, FE Week can exclusively reveal.
The two — Central Bedfordshire UTC and Wigan UTC — did not recruit any learners into Year 10 in 2014/15, according to data released under the Freedom of Information Act.
It comes just a week after Black Country UTC, in Walsall, followed Hackney UTC in announcing it was closing due to problems in attracting learners. They both have current Ofsted grade three ratings.
Overall capacity data for each UTC only takes into account year groups for which it actively recruited — so UTCs opening in September have capacity figures for years 10 and 12 only.
Hackney UTC has not been included in the overall figures as it did not recruit any new learners this year. For UTCs opening in September 2013 and before, figures include capacity for all four years.
The data, collected from each UTC, shows that Central Bedfordshire has 92 learners across the three years for which it recruited, meaning it is operating at 14.1 per cent of its 650-learner capacity, while Wigan is 12.2 per cent full, with 61 of 500 spaces taken.
A spokesperson for Central Bedfordshire UTC, which was taken over by Bedford College last year after the UTC was graded inadequate by Ofsted, said: “We are not recruiting for year 10. We are reviewing recruitment procedures, but we are recruiting into sixth form.”
A Wigan UTC spokesperson said the school was currently focussing on 16 to 19-year-olds while it was joining Bright Futures Education Trust, but would “extend its offer” once the transition was complete.
Joining Wigan and Central Bedfordshire with the lowest student numbers were Visions Learning Trust (Lancashire UTC) which was 20 per cent full, with 120 learners of a possible 600, Buckinghamshire UTC with 25 per cent of its 600 places filled and Plymouth has 30.7 per cent (200) of a possible 650 learners.
Black Country UTC, where a “disappointing” Ofsted inspection result yet to published was also said to be behind the closure decision, was exactly a third full, with 160 of a possible 480 students.
And in total, 55 per cent of UTC places have been filled this year.
UTCs are specialist colleges for 14 to 18-year-olds, offering technical education alongside core subjects, and were brainchild of former Conservative Education Secretary Lord Baker, chair of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust.
A spokesperson for the trust defended the recruitment figures saying that attracting learners “at age 14 is difficult”.
The UTC project was launched in 2011 — two years before general FE colleges were able to recruit full-time learners from the age of 14 — and has enjoyed cross-party support.
On the day news of the Black Country UTC closure broke, Prime Minister David Cameron launched the Conservative election manifesto at UTC Swindon, pledging “a UTC within reach of every town”.
And Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has called for “considerable growth” in the number of UTCs.
Including Hackney, there are currently 30 UTCs. A further 20 are due to open by 2017.
But last week, and in light of the Black Country UTC closure announcement, Association of Colleges deputy chief executive Gill Clipson urged caution from the government saying it needed to factor the need for “consistent demand” into plans for further UTCs.
She said: “For UTCs, or indeed any new institutions to be successful in recruiting a significant number of students there needs to be a consistent demand across all the necessary age groups. We hope that the next Government will factor this into their plans before opening any new institutions.”
Her warning came amid pleas from the 157 Group and University and College Union for a review of the UTC expansion drive with general FE colleges offering a viable alternative.
A spokesperson for Baker Dearing Educational Trust said: “UTCs developed in response to demand from employers who tell us about a severe skills shortage, particularly at level four.
“We know that recruitment at age 14 is difficult, most young people don’t change school at 14 but for those that know where their interests lie, a UTC gives them a really good start with their technical education and a great connection to the world of work.”
Visions LearningTrust, Buckinghamshire, Plymouth and Black Country declined to add further comment.
All of the six UTCs at up to 33.3 per cent capacity opened in September 2013 or earlier.
And all of these saw a fall in the percentage of available places filled since last year — except Visions, which went from 15.5 per cent to 20 per cent, while Black Country rose from 31.5 per cent to 33.3 per cent full.
Baker Dearing has previously defended the low recruitment of newly-opened UTCs, saying it could take time for local parents and children to understand the offer.
The Baker Dearing Trust spokesperson added: “Ninety per cent of UTC students surveyed last year told us they were glad to have made the switch.”
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has thrown its weight behind calls for a review of the push for more University Technical Colleges (UTCS), branding them “ill-conceived” and a “vanity project”.
The damning verdict on UTCs comes after Black Country UTC announced this month it would be closing due to a shortage of learners and a poor Ofsted grade. It was the second UTC to announce closure over learner number problems. However, the Conservatives and Labour have both called for more to be built.
But Dr Bousted, ATL general secretary, said: “The closure of the Black Country UTC shows the investment of taxpayers’ money in UTCs is ill-conceived. Lord Baker’s initiative, although well intentioned, was a vanity project that took no consideration of how UTCs would further fragment FE.” She added: “The government’s willingness to find millions of pounds to support this project, and promise more for it, shows its desire to break up state education and fails to address the expected acute shortage in secondary places within the next parliament.”.
A spokesperson for the Baker Dearing Educational Trust said: “We would expect to play an active part in any review of the UTC programme if that was to be required by an incoming government.”