University technical colleges across the country are planning to recruit students a year before their standard 14 starting age, an FE Week investigation has found.

Five UTCs are consulting on taking students in from year nine, instead of year 10, in future academic years – with more expected to follow suit.

The UTC project is currently under the cosh: seven have either closed or announced their intention to do so, suffering from the requirement recruit at 14. FE Week reported two weeks ago that Leigh UTC, in Kent, was opening an 11-to-14 feeder school next door as an attempted remedy.

All five specialist technical providers looking at year 9 starts said they were considering this because of the government’s new longer and harder GCSEs, for which most traditional schools now allocate three years of preparation.

Charles Parker (pictured), chief executive of the Baker Dearing Trust, which holds responsibility for overseeing UTCs and which claims demand for learner places at 14 may be on the rise, told FE Week he “fully supports” the colleges proposing the change.

Students in year nine would still be classed as key stage four learners – the earliest stage UTCs have always been able to recruit from.

“Many schools now allocate three years to the study of GCSEs, increasing key stage four from two to three years,” Mr Parker said. “Where this is the case in the local education landscape it is sensible for UTCs to offer the same.”

Tougher English and maths GCSEs were introduced for exams this summer.

Many schools now allocate three years to the study of GCSEs … it is sensible for UTCs to offer the same

Higher-tier maths papers, for example, previously devoted 25 per cent to questions at the A and A* level. In this year’s exams, questions relevant to grades seven, eight and nine – the new equivalent to A and A* – make up half the paper.

The five UTCs consulting on changing their admissions age to 13 are Liverpool Life Sciences UTC, London Design and Engineering UTC, UTC Cambridge, Sheffield UTC, and Aston University Engineering Academy in Birmingham.

Liverpool Life Sciences, which had 528 pupils on roll as at January last year and is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, said in its consultation to the local community that a “significant number” of secondary schools in the area now put aside three years for students to prepare for GCSEs.

London Design and Engineering UTC, which only opened this academic year, said the new GCSEs introduced by the Department of Education “particularly in maths and English” place a “greater expectation on what students need to know and master in order to get a good grade”.

As a result, the college is proposing that from September 2018 it will have both a year nine and 10 intake, while from September 2019 it wants a year nine-only intake.

To accommodate the intake of 13-year-olds, it has had to reduce its published admissions number – the amount of students it can recruit – at year 12.

Meanwhile UTC Cambridge, which has 280 learners and is rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, has had to chop its PAN for year 10 students in half to accommodate for the recruitment of year 9s.

From 2018/19 the college will take in 50 students in year 9, 50 in year 10, and 100 in year 12.

Sheffield UTC, one of the more successful institutions of its kind, with 467 students on roll and a ‘good’ Ofsted rating, and Aston University Engineering Academy, which is also rated ‘good’ and has 509 learners, are also consulting on expanding their intakes to year nine from September 2018.

Daniel Locke-Wheaton, principal of Aston, told FE Week he has received an influx of comments from parents complaining that transition at age 14 is now “too late” as a result of the new GCSEs.

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