To circumvent the problem of recruitment at 14, LSEC is setting up a vocational free school – a UTC in all but name. Sam Parrett argues that UTCs should be allowed to start at 11

Another week, another story about a failing UTC.

Seven of them have now closed their doors and 60 per cent are rated as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, so many young people are missing out on the pioneering education they deserve.

The former prime minister David Cameron famously called for “a UTC in every single major town”, and the concept of employer-sponsored, specialist and technical education for young people is indisputably a good one.

With the country’s ever growing skills gap likely to be impacted further by Brexit, the need for high-quality technical education has never been as great.

So why, despite pumping millions of pounds into buildings, marketing and excellent headteachers, are many UTCs failing to recruit?

One barrier is that, in a country where the age of transfer has mostly been 11, it is a challenge getting parents, students and teachers to opt for a move in Year 10. Such transfers will usually happen only if the child is not getting on at school, as opposed to a conscious decision for a well performing student to move.

We at LSEC have first-hand experience of this challenge. We established our own direct entry 14-16 technical academy in 2014, offering 14-year-olds a real alternative to a traditional school route. Students were able to choose a vocational specialism (engineering, hospitality, childcare) to study alongside rigorous GCSEs in academic subjects.

We reached out to headteachers, explaining who we were and what we could offer. We had hoped schools would then offer impartial advice to their students about the options and act in the best interest of each individual.

We have been seen as the place for schools to offload students

Sadly, the reality is that we were viewed as alternative provision. Instead of attracting children with a real passion for vocational learning, in the main we have been seen as the ideal place for schools to offload students unlikely to pass their GCSEs who would ultimately pull their original schools down the league tables.

This meant we were unable to recruit with integrity and realise our key vision: to offer local 14- to 16-year-olds a high-quality vocational alternative.

Despite this, we absolutely maintain our belief in career-led pathways, working closely with employers to provide young people with industry experience.

In 2014 we were approved by the Baker Dearing Trust to develop a health and wellbeing UTC in partnership with a major local employer and university partners. After some detailed scoping work, and with the benefit of our experience, we approached BDT with the suggestion of allowing us to pilot a new 11-19 model of UTC. We were confident this approach would turn what is a great concept, into a viable and successful school model.

Our proposal was duly turned down by BDT, on the basis that UTCs are strictly 14-18. This was despite our plan to keep all the key elements of the UTC concept, including the employer/university sponsorship and a curriculum offer with the post-14 specialism.

We also embraced the innovative teaching methods and pedagogy showcased by the UTC movement, via employer-led projects and the extended day incorporating enrichment and homework time.

Yet despite our obvious passion, our proposal was rejected. I feel this was extremely short-sighted and would question why BDT hasn’t been put under more official scrutiny in relation to recruitment challenges at 14 and the sustainability of UTCs.

We remain undeterred and are now instead setting up a specialist vocational free school in Bromley, which we expect to open in 2020.

This will be a high-performing school for 11- to 18-year-olds specialising in the science, health and wellbeing industry. It is supported by key employers and will help address the shortage of secondary school places in the area as well as skills gaps within this expanding industry. In other words, a UTC in all but name.

In the majority of cases, our education system is simply not set up to allow transfer at 14 to succeed.

If only BDT would accept this, I have no doubt UTCs would be thriving – offering young people the real technical alternative employers are crying out for.


Sam Parrett is CEO of London South East Colleges

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