Last month’s Times Education Commission presented a model for education very similar to UTCs, writes Simon Connell
As we come to the end of another academic year, the UTC programme was very proud that UTC South Durham contributed to the Times Education Commission’s final report, published last month.
The 14-19 school was part of a rich cast list of witnesses for the commission: everyone from John Major to the producer of the Bond films, Barbara Broccoli.
That a UTC could feed into the commission’s work is especially gratifying as now seems the prime time to reform our education system, post-Covid and with new ministers in post.
As we celebrate ten years of the UTC programme this year, we can see how the commissioners’ proposals reflect what has worked best for UTC pupils.
This is especially so given the report’s calls to reform exams at 16 and 18, introduce new career academies, and get away from our zero-sum approach to academic and technical options.
UTC pupils have reaped the benefits of combining academic subjects with technical courses, with 70 per cent of UTC leavers choosing STEM courses at university compared to 42 per cent nationally.
The umbrella approach proposed by the commission, where students could study a ‘British Baccalaureate’ is supported by parents as well. The report cites how parent focus groups enthused about a single qualification bringing together academic and technical learning.
As for the assessment reforms the report puts forward, the decline of GCSEs is clear to see. Even our founder and chairman Lord Baker, who introduced GCSEs while he was education secretary, has called for them to be discarded.
The government now ought to move towards replacing GCSEs in earnest, with a smaller series of exams in line with the commission’s proposals.
More interestingly and more subtly than their recommendation for GCSEs and A levels, the commission has also pushed for BTECs to run alongside T Levels, instead of the latter replacing the former.
We support T Levels but they cannot be expected to replace all technical qualifications. Without many of the existing qualifications, UTC leavers would never have been able to go onto universities or apprenticeships in the numbers they have.
The needs and wants of young people must determine what qualifications are available if they are to become active participants in education instead of passive recipients.
Academic v technical divide
The commissioners’ and witnesses have a clear antipathy for how we make young people choose to be scholars or technicians.
For too long the education system has pushed young people into choosing between the academic and technical routes, ignoring the fact we ought to be preparing them for careers where resilience and communication will be more important than fronted adverbials.
One of the commissioners, education select committee chair and parliamentary UTC group member Robert Halfon, has rightly said the “fundamental purpose” of education must be to prepare pupils for work.
UTC pupils spend significant amounts of time learning about their career options and spending time with employers. They also benefit from learning on the equipment they are likely to use in a future career, whether that be lathes, 3D printers, or science labs.
It’s not enough to teach young people about careers, they need to be prepared to start them as well. If the government wants elite sixth forms then young people ought to have the choice to enrol in technically focused career academies as well.
Schools and colleges ought to have much more support to share resources and knowledge with universities, as well as capital funding to keep up with industry settings.
A career-focused approach to education need not be cynical or soulless, though. The commission’s report notes how UTC South Durham employs a full-time business
engagement manager to coordinate work experience and apprenticeship opportunities.
Similarly hard-working staff at UTCs around the country help inject fun and learning into a wealth of encounters between students and employers.
Pupils at Doncaster UTC recently spent six weeks reinventing the wing of a Vulcan bomber with a local charity.
As well as the valuable engineering experience, having to present their work at the end of the project helped teach valuable communication and organisational soft skills, which the commission notes employers are in dire need of.
Projects like this show the best employer-led engagement gives students tangible tasks and results which reinforce what their teachers are already drilling into them.