Don’t judge UTCs by school standards

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

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  1. It’s not just about the education the UTC provides, it’s about how it moulds a pupil’s future. They are given opportunities to work alongside employers and build skills to help them progress into their chosen career. The UTC encourages pupils to find and experience “real” work experience, not work experience just to tick a box. My child has matured and has more respect for peers than he would have had in a mainstream secondary school. The decision for the transition wasn’t easy but the best move we made. Well done Sheffield City Centre UTC.

  2. Gerry Bennett

    Trying to evaluate the performance of schools and colleges incl UTCs is a real challenge when we are bombarded with statistics which are almost meaningless.
    Very rarely are real numbers evident, percentages fly around, as in this article. How many students were in Yr11 and Yr13 taking final qualifications?
    45% go to Uni, 28% to Apprenticeships, what happened to the other 27%? And what are the actual numbers?

    I believe 9 UTCs have closed, several have had poor Ofsted reports, recruitment levels are less than 30% of capacity, and huge sums of money have been invested in the project. Lord Baker, Sir Ron Dearing and Sir Rod Aldridge’s bandwagon has gained momentum and more UTCs are in the pipe line.
    Where they work and there is strong evidence of a need/market they may well do a good job. However they seem to want to be delivering high academic and high vocational quals. Highly laudable but many are only able to attract/recruit students who are struggling at their current school for whatever reason. This is a challenging transition at age 14.

    I agree that measuring UTCs against other schools is probably unfair, I wonder how many of the general public have any idea about P8, iGCSEs, EBacc and just how the league tables are generated?

    My concern is that at a time when all our services from NHS, Prisons, Schools etc are struggling with funding is this UTC project delivering value for money. Based on the sums mentioned for buildings, facilities, staffing etc and the number of students involved I believe the answer must be NO. The 45% of students who went to Uni could have achieved that by other routes, the UTCs need to find a unique purpose in life to deliver the technical education and skills desired by the Govt,
    Or as many have already found, the only alternative is likely to be closure.

    I have no desire or agenda that wishes the demise of UTCs but for a sensible and fair debate to evaluate the whole project and its future.