Many struggling UTCs are lowering their age of entry, but they could have more impact by going the other way, writes David Phoenix
Technical education is critical for filling the UK’s huge skills shortages, raising productivity and giving students opportunities to learn and build successful careers.
But holes in our education system are restricting students from studying higher technical education.
The creation of UTCs in 2010 was aimed at tackling some of those challenges by offering school pupils a four-year technical education.
Unfortunately, starting at 14 years old created recruitment challenges, which some UTCs have addressed by “extending down” to 11 or 13 years old.
Just recently in FE Week we heard that more UTCs are extending their age range to help stay afloat. However, I believe only “extending down” present risks as well as benefits.
At South Bank UTC, we took a different path by “extending up”, rather than down, into year 14 ̶ an extra year of learning, from 18 years old.
That’s possible through the UTCs’ membership of the LSBU Group, a partnership between London South Bank University, South Bank Colleges (including Lambeth College) and Southbank Academies Trust, which has South Bank UTC.
Most pupils at 18 years old go on to university or to work. Few go on to study standalone technical qualifications at level 4, which are the equivalent of the first year of a degree.
Moreover, this year, some of our UTC students were unable to take their planned path when employers withdrew pre-arranged engineering apprenticeship places due to the impact of Covid-19.
Faced with this challenge, the UTC collaborated with other members of LSBU Group to find a solution and quickly spotted areas of overlap across the two institutions.
The BTEC engineering programme covered much of the content in the higher national certificate mechanical engineering course at university.
Working together, South Bank UTC and LSBU created a new year 14 to enable UTC pupils to stay on for an extra fifth year.
So we are enabling pupils to gain a level 4 higher national qualification and to go directly into the second year of higher education (level 5) at university if they so wish.
South Bank UTC pupils have the option to stay on for an extra year to study for a BTEC extended diploma in engineering.
By working with the university on curriculum content and enrichment activities, that additional year gives students the opportunity to enhance their level 3 BTEC study to meet the HNC requirement at level 4.
Students have the option to take the exam with the fees covered by scholarships from LSBU.
Second-year entry to LSBU is possible because we identified BTEC modules that matched the university’s first-year requirements.
It creates a distinctive five-year programme much closer to the German model
So we equipped pupils who achieve a merit in the requisite elements of the HNC to transfer directly into the second year of our mechanical engineering degree.
“Extending up” to year 14 creates a distinctive five-year programme much closer to the German model, enabling pupils to enter the workplace with a level 4 qualification or to complete a degree in two years.
Any UTC could provide a year 14, but major challenges are there for those without a strong university partnership, including funding, teaching capacity and course restrictions.
That’s how our partnership enables us to go the extra mile and offer students new learning choices.
The benefits of “extending up to year 14” are huge. For pupils, it provides free access to a higher technical qualification without moving their institution or home and an accessible route to level 4 without committing to a full degree programme.
For UTCs it offers a unique point of difference to other providers by enabling them to provide an easier transition from school into higher level technical education.
And South Bank UTC’s recruitment is strong this year, with 149 enrolled pupils in year 12.
Finally, for the government, this model helps fill gaps in the UK education system that contribute hugely to skills shortages.
Let’s recognise the importance of specialist institutions and start extending up ̶ not just down.