The Government might say it supports university technical colleges, but it needs to take heed of criticisms of its planned curriculum reform and removal of many vocational qualifications from school league tables, says Charles Parker

Ask 14–year–olds what they think about having a longer school day and fewer school holidays and their answer is likely to be, at best, doubtful.

However, ask the same 14-year-olds what they think about attending a school where they’d  spend at least two days a week doing something practical, as well as having no homework (this is completed within the longer school day) and you’d probably find they were more interested.

University technical colleges (UTCs) are a new style of school, open to pupils from 14 to 18, with an emphasis on providing a rounded, technical education. The concept was developed about five years ago by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust as a direct response to repeated demands from industry for an increased number of well-educated and high status technicians and engineers. We have some serious skills gaps in the UK and UTCs are one way in which we can help address this issue.

Both a university and industry sponsor are required to set up and govern a UTC. This ensures that the skills taught meet the needs of the local employers, and that the level of education  is as high as it can possibly be. Plus, most UTCs have strong and active support from FE colleges, and some have links with independent training providers. This offers students a high quality, rounded, technical education that can lead to apprenticeships, foundation and higher degrees.

Late last month the government announced the approval of another 13 UTCs to open in 2015, which will bring the total to 45 across the country, eventually providing education for more than 27,000 students. This demonstrates continuing support from the Department for Education and positive recognition that the UTC concept is a step forward in the provision of technical education for young people.

Judging by the results from the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, UTCs are set to be hugely successful.  As well as an 88 per cent pass rate in GCSE maths and outstanding results in the engineering diploma, every leaver went on to further or higher education, apprenticeship or employment.

Changes to league tables have led to the removal of many vocationally-led subjects from the curriculum”

We welcome Education Secretary Michael Gove’s support for UTCs. It is surely a positive thing that the government is encouraging the development of schools that fit the needs of employers within local communities.

However, we have some concerns about some aspects of the government’s wider reforms. For example, the draft curriculum for design and technology says almost nothing about modern technology. It is vital for children to be excited and inspired by the innovations that mark out the economy of today and tomorrow — a point we will make clear in our response to the current consultation.

Second, the decision to remove more than 90 per cent of vocational qualifications from school league tables could have some unintended consequences. For UTCs, it is odd — bordering on perverse — to treat the principal learning qualification in engineering as equivalent to a single GCSE.

And as research by our sister organisation, the Edge Foundation, suggests, changes to league tables have led to the removal of many vocationally-led subjects from the curriculum in many mainstream schools and academies.

This underlines the importance of UTCs. They provide young people with the opportunity to pursue an interesting and worthwhile career, while providing employers with the skilled workforce they require. This is surely a win-win.

Charles Parker, chief executive of
the Baker Dearing Educational Trust  

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