UTCs face a big challenge in that the English school system isn’t set up for recruitment at 14, but there are ways to make it work, says Sam Parrett

With the people in charge of university technical colleges sticking their head in the sand over the growing problem of recruitment at 14, it’s no wonder schools, UTCs and colleges are getting creative in their quest for workarounds.

Despite millions of pounds being pumped into the scheme, seven UTCs have closed or will be, and 60 per cent are rated as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. In this context, one would think the Baker Dearing Trust might be seeking solutions and supporting schools that want to innovate and try to turn a great concept into a successful school model.

This is not the case. Last week Schools Week reported that Leigh UTC will be accepting 11- to 13-year-olds from September – apparently against BDT’s wishes. The new ‘Inspiration Academy@Leigh UTC’ has therefore been positioned as a separate ‘feeder’ school, but as it has just one DfE number and one headteacher, to all intents and purposes it’s an extension of the original UTC’s existing provision.

This is not a surprising move. 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 usually only happen where the child is not getting on at school; well-performing students tend not to make a conscious decision to move.

One would think the Baker Dearing Trust might be seeking solutions and supporting schools that want to innovate

We at London South East Colleges have first-hand experience of this challenge.

We established our own direct entry 14-16 technical academy in 2014, where students were able to choose a vocational specialism to study alongside GCSEs in academic subjects.

We reached out to headteachers, hoping that schools would offer impartial advice to their pupils and act in the best interest of each individual.

Sadly we were viewed and treated 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 pupils who are unlikely to pass their GCSEs and who would otherwise pull them down the league tables.

In 2014 we were approved by BDT to develop a health and wellbeing UTC in partnership with major local employer and university partners. After some detailed scoping work, and with the benefit of our experience of recruiting at 14, we approached BDT asking to pilot a new 11-19 model of UTC.

Our proposal was duly turned down on the basis that UTCs are strictly 14-18, even though we had planned to keep all the key elements of the concept, including the employer/university sponsorship and a curriculum offer with the post-14 specialism.

Despite our obvious support and passion for the concept, we were not given the chance to take it forward and create a potential lifeline for UTCs.

While Leigh has got around the problem by creating a feeder school, our solution is instead to open a specialist vocational 11-18 free school, specialising in the science, health and wellbeing industry, which we expect will open in 2020 in Bromley.

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, it’s a UTC in all but name.

The concept of employer-sponsored, specialist and technical education for young people is indisputably a good one, especially given the predicted post-Brexit skills shortage. The government’s recent technical education reforms, introducing T-levels and streamlined vocational routes, support this model.

Yet it is clear that in the majority of cases, our education system is simply not set up in a way that allows transfer at 14 to succeed. If BDT accepted this fact, I have no doubt UTCs would be thriving and offering young people the real technical alternative that employers are crying out for.

So rather than “not giving its blessing” to Leigh UTC’s common sense move, perhaps BDT should be counting its blessings that this particular college is less likely to be closing its doors anytime soon.

Sam Parrett is CEO of London South East Colleges