University Technical Colleges (UTCs) should function as part of multi-academy trusts (MATs) to make them “stronger”, the skills minister has said.

Nick Boles (pictured above) told the House of Commons this afternoon he wanted to replicate success stories where the 14 to 19 technical institutions functioned well as part of academy chains, and not as standalone institutions.

Responding to a question from Gareth Johnson MP about Leigh UTC, Mr Boles said the institution was a “particularly good example”, not least because it was “part of a very successful multi-academy trust (MAT)”.

He continued: “That is a situation that we want to see replicated across the UTC movement, because UTCs are stronger inside MATs.”

His comments come just weeks after FE Week exclusively revealed that 40 per cent of UTCs that opened between 2010 and 2013 saw student numbers fall this year.

Data obtained by FOI requests from the 15 UTCs, all of which are now going into their third year, showed that six of them saw their learner numbers decrease for 2015/16. Royal Greenwich UTC had the most dramatic drop, with 140 fewer students for 2015/16 – a fall of 35 per cent compared to figures for 2014/15.

The overall increase in student numbers at the UTCs that opened between 2010 and 2013 was just 5 per cent for 2015/16. Together, these 15 UTCs have reached just 50.4 per cent of their combined capacity (4,598 students for a total capacity of 9,126).

Mr Boles’s remarks echo those made by Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw to MPs at the Commons Education Select Committee last Wednesday (March 2).

Sir Michael said that schools moving together into a clusters provided a “really great opportunity” to ensure high quality vocational education.

“If I was running one of those I’d have primary schools, I’d have secondary schools and I’d have a couple of UTCs as well,” he said.

Joining a MAT is also the preferred option for sixth form colleges (SFCs) that choose to convert to academy status, according to Department for Education guidance published last month.

The key assessment criteria for conversion is the development of “stronger partnership and collaboration between the college and schools with which they will work”.

Colleges that propose to “establish or join a multi-academy trust (MATs) should be well-placed to meet the partnership criteria”, the guidance states.

Only SFCs that are “financially and educationally strong [assessed by the department and Ofsted as good or outstanding for both]” will have the option of converting to become a standalone academy.

The Department for Education (DfE) finally published its guidance on how SFCs can go about converting to academies on February 19.

And although providers involved with phase one of the post-16 area reviews were given draft guidance at the end of last month, it still left the 33 SFCs involved with little time to digest the information and potentially lodge applications before the process closes for many in March.

Principal of Hartlepool SFC Alex Fau-Goodwin complained to FE Week that the timescale was far too tight for his college, which is part of the Tees Valley area review, and for many others.

“As a college in wave one, this places significant pressure on effective strategic decision making in order to meet the timescales of the area review,” said Mr Fau-Goodwin.