When David Cameron launched his party’s manifesto at Swindon’s University Technical College (UTC) on Tuesday, he claimed that he wanted to see similar institutions opening in “every city”. That evening, governors of a flagship UTC announced their decision to close it.
Facing low student numbers, financial challenges and a “disappointing Ofsted”, the Black Country UTC, sponsored by the University of Wolverhampton and Walsall College, will close on August 31.
Black Country UTC principal Paul Averis (pictured) said: “This has been a difficult decision for all concerned.”
Of the Black Country UTC’s 158 learners, 57 were due to complete their studies before closure while the rest would be “supported to move to an alternative provision”, a Walsall College spokesperson said.
He added that the UTC would “work closely” with the Department for Education, Walsall College and other local education institutions “to ensure a smooth transition” for learners.
Of the 30 UTCs opened since 2010, Black Country is the second to announce closure. Hackney UTC will also close at the end of the school year.
The colleges, a type of free school with a university sponsor and a “vocational” focus, admit learners from year 10 to 13 and aim to offer a route into employment or higher education within a particular industry.
Fifteen more are due to open in 2016 and a further five in 2017.
However, many have struggled to recruit learners, with five of the 17 opened in 2013 recording pupil numbers more than 80 per cent below expectation.
Black Country UTC had about one-third of its expected pupil numbers every year since opening in 2012. Figures for this year have not been published.
UTCs have also fared badly in Ofsted inspections with three of the five inspected labelled as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. None has achieved an “outstanding”.
In a further blow to UTCs, the Conservative manifesto has pledged that schools “refusing” to offer a specific set of academic subjects – English, maths, science, a language and history or geography – will not be able to achieve the top Ofsted rating.
Schools Week analysis of UTC curriculum as advertised on their websites or prospectuses found that one in three did not appear to offer these subjects. Six did not offer any humanities at GCSE and six did not offer any foreign language study.
The Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which oversees UTCs, said it supported the decision to close Black Country, although it did so with “regret”.
On the curriculum changes, a statement from the trust said that it expected some GCSEs to remain optional rather than compulsory at the colleges. It also defended the low student numbers, stating that it expected these to rise.
“The technical education pathway offered by UTCs is wholly new to the English school system and we expect it will take time for UTCs to reach their maximum capacity. Other UTCs in cities such as Liverpool or Sheffield are proving they can attract large numbers of students.
“Most young people don’t change school at 14 but, for those that know where their interests lie, a UTC gives them a really good start with their technical education and a great connection to the world of work. Ninety per cent of UTC students surveyed last year told us they were glad to have made the switch.”