UTCs perform a valuable function – don’t write off the whole enterprise based on misleading statistical comparisons with schools, says Nick Crew.
The success of University Technical Colleges has been called into question lately, with several closing down, and even Michael Gove, who introduced them, weighing in to label them a failure. Yet UTCs perform a vital function in providing high quality technical education for 14- to 19-year-olds, backed by employers, to meet regional skills shortages.
Our experience in Sheffield – the only city outside of London currently to have two UTCs – demonstrates they are capable of making a valuable contribution to the educational landscape. UTC Sheffield City Centre, which is has a ‘good’ grade from Ofsted, specialises in advanced engineering and manufacturing, and creative and digital pathways. UTC Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park campus opened in 2016, specialising in computing, health sciences and sport science.
Recruiting students at the age of 14 is challenging and compounded by resistance from some parts of the education system to providing parents and young people with impartial careers guidance. As of this month, however, local authorities are legally required to write to the parents of every 13-year-old informing them that their choices can include a UTC.
We know students’ progress accelerates once they join us
This is a positive move. UTCs attract a diverse range of students of all abilities who love to learn by doing. And contrary to what Mr Gove seemed to suggest in his recent piece for the Times, it is not a necessary feature of UTCs that students underperform academically.
Our own results show that students at UTCs can outperform those at schools. In August, 79 per cent of our Year 11 students gained GCSE grades A*–C in maths; in English it was 66 per cent, and 73 per cent in the two sciences. In technical subjects, Year 11 students achieved a 97 per cent pass rate in their creative and digital and engineering qualifications.
With any new and innovative project, some casualties will occur as it matures. But to discard the entire UTC project before successful institutions have the chance to prove themselves would be a colossal waste of the resources already invested in them.
All UTC Sheffield leavers in 2016 progressed to a positive destination, with 45 per cent going to university, including Russell Group institutions, when the national average for schools is 38 per cent, and 28 per cent going on to apprenticeships, compared with a seven per cent national average for schools.
And in November, our engineering students ranked joint fifth in the medal table in WorldSkills UK after competing against colleges, employers and universities.
UTCs are complex educational settings and the most successful ones are embraced by regional stakeholders, have an employer- and university-embedded curriculum, and leaders who understand how to build good schools.
They need a regional focus at the planning stage, supported by employers, councils, universities, FE colleges and partnerships such as teaching school alliances.
The strong relationships we have with our sponsors the Sheffield College, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, as well as Sheffield City Council, underpin our success. Around 50 employers also back us.
UTCs have far less time to influence students’ progress scores
UTCs have a different remit to traditional schools, yet the government’s new performance measures compare the two. Some of the technical and creative subjects that UTCs have developed with complex employer-embedded projects don’t even receive scores in the Progress 8 measure.
Compounding this is the fact that UTCs have far less time to influence students’ progress scores, which are measured over five years starting at the end of primary school.
Young people can only join a UTC at the age of 14 yet their education for the three years prior to joining us counts in their final score.
We know that students’ progress accelerates once they join us. Progress 8 therefore isn’t an effective measure of the performance of a 14-19 technically focused school. UTCs are working with the Department for Education to take action here.
The country needs high quality skill-focused technical learning pipelines – UTCs along with further education colleges and universities can provide this, when working together with employers. The payback to the treasury and employers will come from the reduction in the costs of training to employers, when students leave UTCs, and the increased salaries paid to contribute to the UK tax system.
For too long, the education system has focused on academic qualifications at the expense of the essential skills desired by employers.
Nick Crew is executive principal at UTC Sheffield