With an ethos of ‘learning by doing,’ UTCs bridge the gap between education and work
The first University Technical College (UTC) opened in 2010. Today there are 48 across England, with more than 17,500 students. UTCs were not dreamt up by the Department for Education (DfE) because, since 1870, the DfE has never created a technical curriculum or a technical qualification; instead it has focused on academic subjects.
In 1945 there were 300 technical schools for 13 to 18-year-olds, but neither Labour nor Conservative governments supported them, and they were killed off by snobbery as parents wanted their children to go to the school on the hill and not the one in shabby premises, with greasy hands and dirty rags.
UTCs have stepped into the breach. They offer a secondary-age education for Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 (usually age 14 to 18) with some starting earlier at Key Stage 3. They are sponsored by a local university, and supported by local businesses which decide the curriculum according to their area’s needs, provide projects for the students to work on, and also help with teaching. At a UTC, students can spend up to two days a week designing and making things with their hands.
In 2008, educational consultant Lord Dearing and I put the UTC idea to the then-schools minister Andrew, now Lord, Adonis. He became an advocate, and the Brown government gave us £20m to set up two UTCs.
After a few years and a change of personnel at No 10, David Cameron and George Osborne wanted 24 UTCs, but the then-education secretary, Michael Gove, did not think they were necessary and refused to promote them. So, Lord Dearing and I set up the Baker Dearing Educational Trust as a charity to establish and support UTCs.
Today, the national level of youth unemployment is 12.1 per cent, but the average for 18-year-old UTC-leavers in July 2021 not in employment, education or training (NEET) is just three per cent, and indeed 26 UTCs had no NEETs. We are very proud of the destination data for all our students.
For the last two years, apprenticeship starts at 16 and 18 years of age have fallen, but in a parliamentary written question answered just before Christmas, the DfE revealed that the five best schools in the country for the percentage of apprenticeship starts were UTCs, with the Ron Dearing UTC in Hull leading the way with 54 per cent, followed by UTC Swindon on 50 per cent; UTC South Durham on 48 per cent; Energy Coast UTC in Sellafield on 48 per cent; and SGS Berkeley Green UTC in Gloucestershire on 38 per cent. Indeed, 10 UTCs were in the top 15.
In addition, 55 per cent of our students go on to university, where 70 per cent of them take STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses – higher than the national average of 42 per cent.
UTCs are transforming the life chances of thousands of young students
The House of Lords Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, of which I was a member, published its ‘Skills for every young person’ report in November. It identified a total skills mismatch between what employers expect school-leavers to have – employability skills, particularly digital skills – and what schools teach. It also recognised the success of UTCs, because they listen to employers and engage their interest.
As students can apply to join a UTC without entry exams, many young people determined to become engineers and technicians can easily start on that path. UTCs also offer a second chance to many 13 to 14-year-olds who have previously disengaged from education, with records of absenteeism and disruptive behaviour. UTCs have found these students’ challenging attitudes change when, in the first few weeks, they are treated as adults and, by learning in a workshop using their hands as well as their brains, they soon become focused on their careers.
I am very proud of the fact that UTCs are transforming the life chances of thousands of young students and are major agents of social mobility. We certainly need more UTCs.
Hana Hinton, Scarborough UTC alumna, Degree Apprenticeship with Dyson at University of Warwick: “The UTC provided me with the skills I need to go straight into the workplace as an engineer. My knowledge of electronics and general engineering from my time at UTC has been invaluable, and I’ve noticed that I am confident in these areas, whereas a lot of students from traditional schools have not encountered them before.”
Devan Josiah Wesley, Greater Peterborough UTC alumnus, degree level apprenticeship in systems engineering, focusing on electrical and electronic engineering, with Z-Tech: "Whilst at the UTC I was exposed to many of its sponsors... I gained practical skills which other sixth forms didn't present, which were bettered in the enrichment activities the UTC hosted. I spent my enrichment time working on Green Power with a team of friends, designing and manufacturing an electric kit car."
Lord Baker is a Conservative peer and former education secretary
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