Five new university technical colleges (UTCs) have opened their doors this month, including one that was so popular it had to increase capacity before it even opened.
The news has been heralded by Lord Baker, the former education secretary and architect of the UTCs programme, who claims too many mainstream schools “only care about exam pass rates” and that UTCs promote employability.
The opening of the new institutions represents a net increase of just one, after four closed over the summer and re-opened as schools and sixth forms. It brings the total number of open UTCs to 49.
Focus on employability should start in schools, but too many of them only care about exam pass rates
Ron Dearing UTC in Hull, which will focus on engineering and digital skills and which is backed by the University of Hull, is one of the five new UTCs welcoming its first intake of students this month.
It bucked the trend of low student numbers among UTCs when it was forced to increase its capacity months before it opened.
It had planned to take on 150 students in its first year, but in 2016 was granted permission from the Department for Education to up this to 200 after demand for places outstripped supply.
Other UTCs to have opened this month include SGS Berkeley Green UTC in Gloucestershire, which specialises in digital technology, advanced manufacturing and cyber security, and UTC Portsmouth, which will focus on mechanical and electrical engineering and advanced manufacturing.
Meanwhile, London has gained two more of the controversial technical institutions.
Sir Simon Wilton Westminster UTC is backed by the University of Westminster and specialises in transport, construction engineering and the built environment, while Mulberry UTC, based in Tower Hamlets, will focus on the health and creative industries, and is supported by Goldsmiths University.
Lord Baker, who chairs the Baker Dearing Educational Trust which supports UTCs, said they would “play a vital role in developing young people for the modern labour market”.
“In the ‘90s Blair called for ‘education, education, education’,” he said. “Today the call should be ‘employability, employability, employability’.
“Focus on employability should start in schools, but too many of them only care about exam pass rates. What really matters is that students are ready for skilled work and, as we approach Brexit, the stakes could not be higher.”
Closed UTCs becoming schools and sixth forms
All four UTCs that closed this year have since become mainstream schools or sixth forms.
Tottenham UTC has re-opened as the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham – a sixth form sponsored by top private school Highgate and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club
Royal Greenwich UTC has become a secondary school, but only after the local council shelled out £13 million for the conversion.
Greater Manchester UTC’s site in Oldham is now in use by Oasis Academy Oldham to accommodate year 7 pupils without a school place, and the buildings of the former Daventry UTC have been handed over to a Parker E-Act Academy.
To date, eight UTCs have closed as a result of recruitment problems.
Freedom of Information requests submitted by Schools Week in April revealed that learner numbers had dropped at two thirds of the institutions opened in 2014 or before.
Even Michael Gove, the former education secretary and a key architect of the UTC programme, admitted earlier this year that “evidence has accumulated” that the experiment with 14-to-19 technical institutions had failed.
And around half of the UTCs inspected by Ofsted have been rated as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.