Revealed: Two thirds of UTCs to hand funding back after overestimating pupil numbers last year

Almost two thirds of university technical colleges overestimated their student numbers last year and will have to repay funding to the government, with five owing more than half a million pounds each.

A freedom of information request has revealed that a total of 30 of the 49 UTCs which are still open drastically misjudged their ability to recruit learners in 2017/18 and now face paying over £6.5 million back to the Education and Skills Funding Agency between them.

The five worst offenders accumulated debts of over £500,000 each, with Bolton UTC furthest in the red with a debt of -£688,364.

Estimating pupil numbers is hard for UTCs. There are many factors involved.

It was closely followed by London’s Elutec on -£672,075, and Salford’s UTC@MediaCityUK on -£657,273. Wigan UTC and Medway UTC also made the top five, with -£609,038 and -£504,496 respectively.

A spokesperson for the Baker Dearing Trust, which represents all UTCs, insisted pupil numbers were rising at the controversial 14-to-19 free schools.

However, as FE Week reported last week, although the overall number of learners has risen at UTCs as more have opened, the average intake of 14-year-old learners per UTC has actually fallen this year.

The BDT spokesperson said: “Estimating pupil numbers is hard for UTCs. There are many factors involved.

“Nearly all other secondary schools have feeders and recruit at a standard age so they can estimate their numbers more easily.”

She added that the total amount owed by UTCs has fallen since 2016/17 last year, from £11 million to £6.6 million, and said all UTCs have a financial recovery plan to repay the money owed to the ESFA.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the timescales for repayment “vary on a case-by-case basis”.

“Funding that is provided to set up new free schools and UTCs is based on estimates of pupil numbers,” she said. “Once the school or UTC opens, this funding is then adjusted to reflect actual figures and where necessary we work with the institutions to recover funding.

“We have agreed recovery plans in place for most free schools and UTCs that have pupil-number adjustments, and we are in discussion with the others about terms for recovery.”

Most UTCs have a capacity for 600 learners. In 2017/18, Wigan UTC had the fewest learners of the top five, with just 116 enrolled students, leaving it 81 per cent below its maximum capacity. UTC@MediaCityUK had the most at 372, but was still just 62 per cent full.

Medway UTC was the only one of the five owing more than £500,000 to respond to requests for comment. Medway, which was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in May, was renamed as Waterfront UTC when it joined The Howard Academy Trust earlier this month.

A spokesperson said none of the UTC’s existing team were in post when the estimated pupil numbers were submitted and so it could not comment on why they had been overestimated, but said a repayment plan had been agreed with the ESFA as part of its transfer to the new trust.

Studio schools have fared slightly better than their technical cousins, with 11 out of a possible 21 left owing the government money after overestimating pupil numbers last year. However, just one studio school has a debt of over £500,000, with Manchester Creative Studio owing -£521,297.

Manchester Creative Studio closed this summer after being dogged by low pupil numbers and significant financial challenges. It had been placed in special measures after being rated ‘inadequate’ in every category in March 2017 and did not take on any new pupils in September of that year.

We have agreed recovery plans in place for most free schools and UTCs that have pupil-number adjustments

Martin Shevill, chair of the school’s trustees, said the pupil-prediction numbers had been submitted shortly before the previous trust board had disbanded, and the closing financial position of the trust was being finalised with the DfE.

“The remit of the new trust board was to assess the viability of the school going forward. Very early on we made the decision that the school should not take in another intake of Year 10s and Year 12s while the school’s future was so uncertain,” he said.

“This meant that the school population was effectively halved. In addition, other parents made the decision to withdraw their child from the school following a difficult Ofsted inspection.

“As a result, there was a significant gap between the optimistic pupil predictions that the previous trust submitted, and Manchester Creative School’s actual student population once critical decisions had been made.”

Studio schools were designed to take on cohorts of up to 300 learners. In its final year, Manchester Creative Studio had around 40.