Ministers are considering plans to open mini-university technical colleges (UTCs) within schools.
The Baker Dearing Trust, the licensing body for the colleges created by former education secretary Lord Baker, is hoping to pilot what they call “UTC sleeves” in ten schools across England.
Discussions were held with the Department for Education this month about the plan. The trust was hopeful of a final decision within the next couple of weeks but fears this may now be pushed back following last week’s reshuffle.
Simon Connell, the trust’s chief executive, told Schools Week the “sleeves” would “mirror what a UTC does” on a smaller scale.
But experts warn the scheme could create a place where only academically low-performing pupils are sent. One union boss has also labelled the idea as another “vanity project” of UTC architect Lord Baker.
Much like the 48 UTCs, the miniature versions would focus on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects and would be open to students from age 14.
Each school’s sleeve would have two specialisms, again like a normal UTC, such as health or engineering.
This UTC pathway would run alongside a school’s academic pathway, with an employer board to shape the curriculum.
Since 2010, schools have been judged on their GCSE entries to English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects, such as English, maths, science, languages, to the detriment of technical subjects.
But the new pathway would be judged on destinations and exam results, not on EBacc.
Connell told Schools Week the “sleeves” could be created instead of building full, brand new UTCs that “cost a lot of money”.
He said the Baker Dearing Trust has already passed the names of ten “willing” schools to the DfE who want to take part in the pilot. He suggested the DfE could use part of the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund to pay for the equipment, facilities and extra staff capacity needed to “embed the curriculum”.
Before Gavin Williamson left as education secretary and a new DfE ministerial team was appointed last week, the department was “working really closely” with the trust on a pilot, Connell added.
But details such as when it could run, for how many students and what resources it could need are still being ironed out.
A DfE spokesperson said officials “continue to have productive discussions with the Baker Dearing Trust on how best to strengthen technical education”.
But “no decision has been taken on piloting new approaches” so far.
Jonathan Simons, director of lobbyists Public First and a former government education adviser, said the trust should “stop trying to make 14 to 19 happen”.
While integrating students within existing school and having wider teaching and learning was a “good idea,” mini-UTCs suffer “from the same sheep and goats route at age 14” as UTCs, he told Schools Week.
“Ultimately, we need a broad and balanced – and academic – education for all until 16, and then a choice of different and well-funded routes after that, including on technical education.”
When asked by Schools Week if UTC sleeves could become a “dumping ground” for students who are struggling academically, Connell said schools “can’t really do that any more” as they are “found out by Ofsted and the DfE”. Another disincentive would be that the student would remain within the school.
National Education Union joint-general secretary Kevin Courtney said the sleeves would have to be “a genuine choice for learners rather than a place where they are sent if they are not going to get their target grades”.
The union boss also slammed the scheme as a “vanity project”, and expressed concerns it would not “solve the fundamental issues about how our curriculum is organised”.
UTCs have been fraught with recruitment and quality issues since they were launched by Lord Baker in 2010. Eleven have been forced to close their doors due to low student numbers or poor Ofsted reports.
However, the Baker Dearing Trust reported this week the number of students on roll at UTCs across the country has shot up by ten per cent on last year, increasing from 15,861 to 17,504. The numbers have risen by 42 per cent since 2017, when UTCs had 12,304 learners on roll in total.