UTC architect George Osborne says 14 start age ‘hasn’t worked’

George Osborne, one of the driving forces behind university technical colleges, would consider scrapping the starting age of 14 if he were still in charge at the Treasury.

The former chancellor told the parliamentary education committee that he had been examining early issues with the 14 to 19 vocational schools just before he left office in 2016, and had come to the conclusion that they are in need of radical reform.

He was in Parliament today in his capacity as chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, attending a hearing on education in the north.

The partnership’s latest report, released in February, discussed the need for more workplace-based learning options for 14-year-olds in the region.

However, Osborne has now admitted that UTCs have perhaps not been the best option.

The idea of UTCs was born at the end of the Gordon Brown’s premiership in the late 2000s with the backing of former Tory education secretary Lord Kenneth Baker, though the subsequent coalition government expanded on it.

“There was a question mark at starting it at 14,” Osborne told MPs. “There is an argument that I was digging into before I left office that moving school at 14 is not always the easiest thing and people are reluctant.”

He said the model “clearly hasn’t worked” in some cases and “if I was back at the Treasury I would be looking at that”.

READ MORE: UTCs have ‘failed to establish their position’, spending watchdog says

In many areas, UTCs have failed because they could not encourage enough pupils to leave school at 14.

Eight have so far closed, largely due to recruitment issues, and one fifth of the UTCs inspected by Ofsted so far are rated ‘inadequate’.

Osborne is the latest senior figure involved in the inception of the specialist technical education providers to admit that the model, as it stands, is in serious trouble.

Michael Gove, who launched UTCs in his stint as education secretary, acknowledged in February last year that “the evidence has accumulated and the verdict is clear” that UTCs were in trouble.

Three months ago it emerged that Gove had been “forced” to create UTCs by Osborne and David Cameron.

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  1. Sarah

    This was absolutely predictable and predicted. The government were warned by many local authorities that introducing UTCs into the secondary provision in an area would not be viable educationally or finanancially and risked destabilising and damaging existing provision. This has been a colossal waste of public money. Many UTCs have needed up as dumping grounds for struggling students that schools feared would undermine their academic results. Time to end this failed experiment swiftly and with least cost and disruption to students. Let this be a lesson that new models need proper evaluation and testing before rash ideological decisions are taken without any evidence to support them.

  2. It was obvious that expecting pupils to leave secondary school after just three years to attend a supposedly career focused institution at 14 wouldn’t work. It was equally obvious that many pupils who did move were those which schools were glad to see go.
    But this didn’t stop Michael Gove promoting them. Nor did it stop the Coalition and subsequent governments from throwing money at them. This was despite the Coalition appearing to lose enthusiasm for UTCs way back in October 2013.

  3. Mark Watson

    It’s all very well sitting on the sidelines and carping about how the Government got it wrong (it’s also pretty easy given how unsuccessful UTCs and Studio Schools have been) but our education system (and indeed society in general) has always been blinkered in its absolute focus on academic education to the exclusion of anything vocational.
    Many countries, Germany being the obvious example, have vocational education as part of the foundation of their education system in a way which we don’t.
    Simply continuing the status quo is not sensible. We need a system like UTCs/Studio Schools, but it does need to be set up in a way which doesn’t mean it is seen as ‘lesser’ than academic education and used just as a place for those those don’t fit in traditional schools.

    • Mark – you’re right that there’s been a sniffy attitude towards vocational pathways. It’s adversely affected the UK for decades. And it’s not helped by school performance tables putting more emphasis on academic subjects (EBacc, ‘facilitating’ A levels, praising schools which send a large number of pupils to Oxbridge).
      A couple of decades ago, Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker, architect of UTCs) started the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (described in more detail in the link below). It did much to raise the profile of generic work-related skills and careers education and guidance. But this excellent initiative stalled when funding was withdrawn and any gains were finally undone by Michael Gove
      The flaw in UTCs and studio schools was their starting age – 14. But if they didn’t start at 14, what would be the difference between UTCs starting at 16 and existing further education colleges?
      The money spent on UTCs would have been better spend rolling out an updated TVEI nationally.

  4. Sarah

    The problem isn’t just the system, it’s the culture which does not value technical expertise and give it the same status as academic accomplishments. The current system creates very strong incentives for schools to retain the brightest and most motivated students rather than see them pursuing technical or vocational options. The absolute destruction of an independent careers service has effectively removed opportunities for students to find out about and be encouraged to pursue non academic studies post 16. Until there is an incentive in the system for students to be exposed to and be encouraged towards vocational and technical studies these will be viewed with suspicion and avoided. Also the provision of apprenticeships in key skills is patchy at best and in some places virtually non existent. These are the reasons why the UTC and studio experiment was bound to fail.

    • Mark Watson

      I agree it’s the culture. But’s it also very much the culture of society, not just a problem of incentivisation of schools. Parents are, in general, far less supportive of their children taking a vocational route as opposed to an academic route.
      Whilst I completely agree that not having a good careers service is a bad thing, and it should be reinstated asap, I don’t think that has too much direct bearing here. Talk to FE Colleges about how many students came to them through schools career services in the past and they’ll say it wasn’t exactly a deluge.
      I think you’re absolutely right about encouraging students to consider vocational and technical studies, but in my opinion that’s not going to be enough until we put the same effort into encouraging parents to view them as being on a par with the ‘traditional’ academy approach.