Government urged to do more to rescue struggling UTCs

Far more needs to be done by the government to support its struggling University Technical Colleges programme, a new report by the National Foundation for Educational Research has warned.

The document named ‘Behind the Headlines’ analysed the UTC programme so far, acknowledging that “the introduction of UTCs has been very challenging”.

It identified six areas for improvement that would “help [UTCs] establish themselves and thrive”, and tackle ongoing issues such as under recruitment.

This comes with the UTC project is widely accepted as being under the cosh: seven have either closed or announced their intention to do so, suffering from the requirement to recruit at 14. 

The new report’s authors, Kelly Kettlewell, Daniele Bernardinelli, Jude Hillary and Claudia Sumner, warned the government that unless UTCs get more support to overcome their “inherent challenges”, they will “continue to struggle and be vulnerable to closure”.

They concluded that without changes, this could “damage the credibility of the technical / vocational sector” over time.

“If the government is not prepared to provide this support, it might be best for it to reconsider the rationale and purpose of UTCs,” the report said.

The first of NFER’s recommendations proposed the government should “independently assess students attending UTCs at the point of entry” to ensure their progress can be accurately monitored from the start.

However, the report did not suggest the pool of students UTCs draw from is drastically different to mainstream schools in their area.

For example, the proportion of year 10 students at UTCs who are eligible for free school meals “broadly reflects” the proportion of the same group of students within the UTCs’ local authorities.

Differences include the fact that UTCs’ year 10 intake has been on average than “more than 70 per cent male” – though the gender balance was fond to be “improving slightly”.

The absence rates of future UTC pupils were also found to be higher than their peers, suggesting “many UTC students may have faced some challenges in terms of engagement in school”.

But overall, “successive year 10 cohorts in UTCs have broadly similar average prior attainment to students in other mainstream secondary schools,” suggesting UTCs are generally not taking on cohorts that are more disadvantaged or less able.

Other proposed changes in the report focused on adapting aspect of the current system to fit UTCs better – despite their relatively recent entrance into the education landscape.

The NFER report suggested that headline accountability measures should be examined to check how well they “fit with the curriculum and purpose of UTCs”, with an open mind to “how the existing measures might be adapted or complemented with additional measures”.

UTCs should then have performance carefully monitored with “more appropriate performance measures”.

Non-accredited technical and vocational qualifications on offer in UTCs should also be identified, it said, and guidance provided about suitable accredited alternatives – if necessary, developed from scratch with awarding bodies.

Further reviews should take place to identify any “other disincentives in the system” which may be “hindering UTCs from recruiting pupils”, the report found, with appropriate action subsequently taken to “ensure there is a level playing field”. 

Finally, the report suggested “research into higher attaining UTCs to identify why they are more successful”, with the aim of looking at how they can be “further supported” and their good practice passed on to new UTCs.

FE Week asked the Department for Education if it would comment on any of the NFER recommendations for improving the UTC programme.

A spokesperson said: said: “The best UTCs provide excellent technical education equipping young people with high-level technical skills to meet the needs of the UK economy.

“We want to build on that good work by strengthening the programme through partnerships with successful secondary schools, multi-academy trusts and raising awareness of UTCs among parents and pupils.”

A spokesperson for the Baker Dearing Trust, the body that runs UTCs, said the report’s findings are “encouraging” and show that the UTC model “is now starting to work, despite a number of barriers, some of which are reflected in the NFER analysis”.

She added: “The Department for Education is already considering many of the recommendations set out in the report. We look forward to working with them on the programme of reform of technical education as announced in the Queen’s speech.”

An FE Week investigation in April found that learner numbers had dropped this year at two-third of the UTCs that opened in 2014 or before.

As reported by FE Week in March, 11 out of the 20 UTCs inspected so far by Ofsted had been rated as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. Since then one more has been awarded a grade four, and three more have been given grade threes – while one bounced back from a grade four to a grade two.

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