The 2015 Tory Party Manifesto said the party would continue setting up University Technical Colleges (UTCs) until there was one ‘within reach of every city’. The year before, Lord Adonis, then a Labour peer, criticised the poor state of technical education in England and recommended building at least 100 new UTCs by 2020.
Lord Adonis was right to slate technical education in England. It’s always been perceived (wrongly) as second-best after academic subjects – something more suitable for the less able. The Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) of the 80s and 90s attempted to correct this by providing all English 14 year-olds with generic work-related skills supplemented by careers education and guidance.
TVEI raised the profile of vocational education. But it died after funding was stopped. Michael Gove buried the corpse when he said schools weren’t obliged to offer work experience. The introduction of EBacc has further downgraded vocational and creative subjects.
What, then, was supposed to save technical education in England post TVEI? The answer was UTCs and studio schools offering technical education for 14-19 year olds. But UTCs, even if one appeared near every city, were never going to provide technical education to all children. They were always going to struggle to recruit 14 year-olds. Leaving a secondary school after just three years was never going to be popular with pupils or parents.
UTCs were a noble idea but the concept was flawed.
Most UTCs are half empty.
Two out of three UTCs face falling numbers.
Seven UTCs have closed or are about to close.
Planned UTCs, such as in Guildford, and Burton and South Derbyshire, were scrapped before opening.
UTCs run by multi-academy trusts appear to ‘soak up’ lower ability pupils leading to accusations they’re being used as dumping grounds.
UTCs have too often been promoted as a route for the less academic.
15 studio schools out of 36 nationwide have closed or about to close.
The time has come for the policy to be abandoned. No more UTCs or studio schools should be opened. Existing ones which are viable could continue but this raises the question about what to do with UTCs which are struggling. Options, subject to local conditions, could be:
1 Closure, but this wastes taxpayers’ money.
2 Become 11-19 schools.
3 Become sixth-form colleges.
4 Become sixth-form annexes to nearby secondary schools with no sixth- form.
5 Become annexes to existing post-16 provision offering particular specialisms.
6 UTCs sponsored by a university could become part of the university.
Studio schools could be absorbed into their attached schools rather than being separate provision.
The option NOT available is to continue the UTC policy.
What, then, is the future for technical education in England? That will be the focus of a future article. But one thing is essential: the divide between academic and technical should be scrapped. All our young people need both. Setting up a few UTCs and studio schools which serve just a tiny proportion of pupils (mainly boys and, in some cases, mainly lower ability) is a poor substitute.