Is the DfE losing enthusiasm for UTCs?

Janet Downs's picture
“University technical colleges provide a high-quality technical education. That is why they are a key part of our school reforms.”

Michael Gove, 27 February 2012

But the latest announcement from a “Whitehall source” seems lukewarm in contrast to Gove’s previous praise:

“Lord Baker’s university technical colleges are an unproven concept…”

The comment was in response to a plan by Lord Baker, former Education Secretary and UTC pioneer, to set up “career colleges” for 14-19 year-olds specialising in particular skills.

But the source added there was “a long way to go before career colleges are government policy.” And a Department for Educational spokesman told the Independent: “These are proposals from Ken Baker. It is not a government policy.”

There are now 17 UTCs and the first one, JCB Academy, reported record results in 2013. All students achieved 5 GCSEs A*-C including Engineering. It’s unclear whether these included Maths and English.

In 2012, 58% of JCB pupils gained 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. The GCSE cohort comprised 40% previously high attaining pupils, 54% middle attainers and only 6% low attainers. The number of GCSE entries as opposed to vocational equivalents was low: the average GCSE entry per pupil was only 4.8. High attainers took an average of 5.3 GCSEs.

Bizarrely, the DfE’s School Performance Tables describe the academy as “closed”. The JCB Academy, a free school – university technical college, opened on 1 January 2013. It’s unclear why a school which opened in September 2010 should have closed and reopened again.

Only one UTC has been inspected: the Black Country UTC “Requires Improvement”. Ofsted said teaching didn’t help all students make progres, achievement in some subjects wasn’t as high as it should be and fixed-term exclusions were too high. However, Ofsted found pupils were referred from pupil referral units as well as local schools and the proportion of special needs pupils was above average. These pupils were well-supported. Many pupils started from a low base (in contrast to JCB’s cohort). Attendance was below average but improving – the UTC had good support from the local authority’s Education Welfare Service.

But is steering children into vocational courses at age 14 the way to increase skills? The recent OECD Adult Skills Survey, in which 16-24 year-olds in England and Northern Ireland did poorly, found young adults in this age group who followed general “academically-orientated” courses to the end of upper secondary* were more likely to have higher literacy skills than those who pursued a vocational route. One exception was Finland where there was no difference. OECD thought general courses were more likely to foster “the kind of generic skills” assessed by the Adult Skills Survey while vocational courses were less likely to do so. This seems counter-intuitive because vocational courses are supposed to prepare pupils particularly for employment.

So, is Whitehall losing its earlier zeal for UTCs? The latest pronouncements would make it appear so. And is vocational education for 14 year-olds the way to raise generic skills? OECD findings suggest it isn’t.

UPDATE 16 October 2013.  The 100% pass rate for the JCB Academy did not include English.  64% of the 2013 cohort passed English GCSE A*-C.  That reduces the proportion of pupils reaching the benchmark 5 GCSEs A*-C to no more than 64%.

*The end of upper secondary is at age 18. Most countries class upper secondary as from age 16-18. In England this stage is referred to as “further education” or Sixth Form. Most countries have graduation at 18 with few high-stakes tests at age 16.

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