A new dawn for technical education? Expansion of UTCs offers opportunities, but poses big questions

This week the government approved the creation of a further 15 University Technical Colleges (UTCs), bringing the total to 34. These are state secondary schools for 14- to 19-year-olds that will focus on technical and applied learning. Backed by universities and businesses, they include an engineering school in Warwick supported by Jaguar Land Rover, and a school in Salford supported by media giants such as the BBC and ITV.

The creation of UTCs should be welcomed. There is growing evidence that our economy will require more workers with high-level technical skills over the coming years. The number of technicians reaching retirement age means that around 450,000 technician jobs will be created in the next eight years, and UTCs are one way to help strengthen the pathways into these careers. They can also provide a change of scene for those students who have become disengaged with more traditional school life.

This is not the first time England has experimented with technical schooling. The 1944 Education Act created a ‘tripartite system’ of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools. However the technical schools never really materialised, and the system was justifiably criticised for providing poor-quality vocational education and dividing children along class lines at age 11.  In northern Europe, by contrast, a system of technical education flourished in the post-war period, providing a ready supply of skilled technical labour and an effective route into work.

So have the creators of UTCs learnt from the mistakes of post-war Britain? The early signs are encouraging. Most importantly, UTCs are comprehensive schools where any pupil can opt to enrol at age 14. Unlike the grammar system, pupils are not forced down a certain route by virtue of a test taken at age 11. UTCs will also deliver a curriculum common to other schools - with students expected to take GCSEs in science, maths, humanities and languages. Sponsored by universities and offering A-levels, it is assumed that pupils can go on to higher education.

This mitigates the risk that pupils are set down a separate education ‘track’ that narrows their choices later in life. UTCs are also properly funded with a longer school day, shorter holidays, and the involvement of leading universities and businesses offering regular work experience. This helps to ensure that the quality of education on offer is high. So while it is too early to judge the success of UTCs, the right building blocks are in place to avoid the problems of poor quality and class division that plagued the post-war school system.

At the moment, UTCs are a handful of high-profile experiments – with just two already open in England. The question for the future is whether they will expand to become a mainstream reform, or whether they will go the way of the old ‘CTC’ technical schools that were small in number and peripheral to the wider school system. The man behind the creation of UTCs, Lord Baker, is clearly thinking big. He hopes to create 100 UTCs by 2015 and sees them as part of a wider structural reform. This expansion could throw up a number of challenges. There are four questions that need to be answered if UTCs are to become a mainstream fixture in England:

1. The age range of pupils studying at UTCs is 14-19, whereas the majority of secondary schools start at age 11. If large numbers of pupils start moving school at age 14 it could be disruptive for the schools they are leaving (it would effectively turn them into middle schools, which we know from previous experience were not successful). Will 14-19 become a distinctive phase in our education system, with colleges, schools and qualifications having to cater specifically for this group?

2. The range of industries supporting UTCs is currently very limited – they are dominated by engineering and creative industries. But the UK economy requires technical skills in a huge range of other areas such as pharmaceuticals, food processing and green technology. Can the range of industries backing UTCs be expanded to better meet the needs of our economy?

3. UTCs work best in urban areas where they can draw their intake from many different schools, and where there are big employers present. How can a high-quality technical education be offered to young people outside of the big cities?

4. At £10m a piece, building and equipping UTC’s is an expensive business. If Lord Baker achieves his aim of establishing 100 of them, it would cost around £1bn. This would be over the same time period when capital spending in education is being cut by 60%. Are the capital costs of expanding UTCs affordable?

The creation of UTCs is a positive move, but as the programme grows it will raise a number of questions. These questions need to be answered before UTCs can move from a small-scale experiment to become an integral part of the English school system.

Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at IPPR. Follow him on twitter @jp_clifton

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