Growth in UTCs approved despite the 17 set up so far being funded for more pupils than are on roll

Janet Downs's picture
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“Ministers give green light to expansion of university technical college scheme”, announced the Independent today.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) offer education with a technical focus to 14-19 year-olds. 17 are already in existence although 12 of these only opened in September 2013.

Every UTC is funded for more pupils than there are on roll. Hackney UTC, for example, is funded for 229 pupils but only has 109; Wigan UTC has 59 pupils but receives funding for 85.

It could be argued extra funding is needed because UTCs are new and require more money. Their technical focus needs expensive resources. But not all are brand new.

The JCB Academy opened in 2010 at a cost of £22m. It has 440 pupils but is funded for 478. Oddly, the school performance tables classify JCB Academy as a “new school opened 1 January 2013”.

So, why did it close after just two years? All new schools are supposed to have a full Ofsted inspection within two years but JCB Academy has never had one. A monitoring visit in January 2012 judged it was making “good progress towards raising standards”. But that academy’s officially “closed” and the “new” academy needn’t be inspected yet.

64% of JCB’s 2013 cohort reached the benchmark 5+GCSEs including Maths and English. The Academy made heavy use of vocational exams but that’s probably to be expected as the focus is on technical subjects.

Black Country UTC, opened 2011, has 151 pupils and is funded for 178. Unlike JCB, it has been inspected. It was judged* “Requires Improvement” in January 2013. Ofsted noted the proportion of FSM pupils was above average and a “significant minority” had gaps in learning because of “disrupted” education. Inspectors also found pupils were admitted from pupil referral units (PRUs) as well as local schools. 48% reached the GCSE benchmark in 2013.

It would be unwise to judge the UTC programme on the results of just two UTCs with different intakes. But the programme is growing rapidly despite previous signs that the Government was becoming lukewarm.

The evidence so far is that they are funded more generously than other schools and this doesn’t diminish over time. Both JCB academy and Black Country UTC are funded for more pupils than they have on roll. And Ofsted evidence of Black Country UTC raises the awkward question about whether UTCs might be used as alternatives to PRUs.

There is no evidence that following vocational courses from age 14 has any impact on results. On the contrary, the recent OECD Adult Skills Survey, in which English/Northern Irish 16-24 year-olds in did poorly, found young adults in this age group who followed general “academically-orientated” courses to the end of upper secondary (age 18-19) were more likely to have higher literacy skills than their peers who followed a vocational route.

Lower secondary education in most developed countries ends at 16 not 14. Most of these countries have graduation at 18 after two years of upper secondary. Yet the Government is investing in more UTCs which reduce the number of lower secondary years and require pupils to make a decision about upper secondary education options when they should, like their international peers, be continuing with a broad, balanced curriculum until 16.

Supporters of UTCs could argue that curriculum offered is still broad and balanced but has a vocational focus. In which case, there’s no need to remove pupils after Year 9 especially given the OECD findings above.

A DfE spokesperson once described UTCs as an “unproven concept”. It is unclear, then, why the Government continues to invest in them.

*Citing Ofsted judgements does not imply agreement.

Note: I’ve made no attempt to analyse the 16-18 Performance Tables. The information contained is confusing. I’ll deal with the confusion in another thread.
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