It’s too early to talk of abandoning UTCs, says Sally Dicketts. The key to success is to hold true to their core principles – and find a formula that works for you
A quick scan of recent media coverage of university technical colleges (UTCs) could lead you to believe that this is nothing more than an educational experiment gone wrong.
Some commentators have even suggested that the government review its policy on UTCs. This follows a clutch of poor Ofsted ratings, two closures and four colleges announcing that they are to convert to mainstream status.
As a lead sponsor for two UTCs, including the first to be rated outstanding across all areas, my experience of this educational newcomer is a world apart.
Far from being fundamentally flawed, the principles at the core of the UTC movement make it a valuable part of our education system. These include:
• Offering young people a high-quality education that develops academic and technical skills;
• Providing pupils who know where their interests lie, the chance to specialise at 14 and get ahead of their peers;
• Providing a curriculum co-created with employers, that develops the technical and soft skills required by industry;
• Offering young people a clear line of sight to employment.
Where UTCs hold true to these principles, the organisations and their pupils succeed. Where one or more element is absent, the cracks appear.
Don’t rely on feeder schools
Our UTCs, with one studio school and a mainstream comprehensive, are now part of a multi-academy trust with its roots in the technical, further education (FE) sector.
This expertise in technical, vocational education has provided a sound foundation on which to build.
But we have also taken key learnings from our UTCs to shape curriculum delivery in our FE colleges. This includes a faculty structure aligned to industry sectors, employer involvement in curriculum design and delivery and a greater focus on project-based learning. It is about respecting sector differences, while building bridges.
There is clearly no single formula for what makes a successful school or UTC, but I believe the following can be critical.
Be clear about the offer
If UTCs are to offer young people a clear route into employment, their specialisms must meet the needs of local industry. At UTC Reading, a specialism in computer science prepares learners to work in the UK’s “Silicon Valley”. At UTC Oxfordshire, a specialism in life sciences supports the country’s Science Vale, one of the largest science clusters in the UK. One size does not fit all.
Build strong employer partnerships
This will allow you to build your reputation on the back of theirs. It takes time to understand an employer’s needs; while one might want access to the next bright young things, another might want to develop its corporate social responsibility or gain a new profile in the local community. Find out what’s important, then formalise their involvement through memorandums of understanding.
Concentrate on building employer partnerships
Don’t rely on feeder schools Too many people assume that building relationships with local feeder schools is the key to recruitment. This is only likely to result in schools referring those who are not expected to achieve academically. If you want the best students, concentrate on building employer partnerships and developing a relevant, high-quality curriculum.
Be prepared to promote New UTC principals, particularly if they have come from mainstream schools, don’t always appreciate the work that needs to be put into marketing and promotion. There isn’t an obvious catchment and, as a new school, it will have no existing credentials. This is where early employer engagement pays dividends. At both our UTCs, our employer partners helped by hosting taster events and activities. This offers a wow factor as it gives potential applicants the chance to see their future working environment and glimpse their future careers.
With the government’s increased focus on technical education, it would be foolish to abandon the UTC movement so early in its lifecycle.
Let’s learn from what is working well, as much as what isn’t, to provide our young people with the choice and education they deserve.
Sally Dicketts is group chief executive at Activate Learning