In the Times last Friday Michael Gove, posing as an early enthusiast for the University Technical Colleges (UTCs) which I have spent years setting up and promoting, called for their closure – because, he said, the quality of their education and training had failed. This is ill-informed rubbish.
UTCs are a type of secondary free school introduced as part of the last government's academies programme. They are hybrid institutions, sponsored by a university but focused on specific, technical, vocational education.
We treat our students as if they are adults who are starting their first jobs. Employers like us because we don’t subscribe to the fashionable piety that A-levels and a university degree are the only route to success.
Gove now presents himself as a former champion of UTCs so that he can “admit” that they have failed. But from the beginning his embrace of them of was that of an undertaker: he cut their financial support and visited just one as Secretary of State for Education. He would certainly never have invented them.
It fell to me to persuade David Cameron and George Osborne that they were vitally needed. George Osborne told me that as chancellor he had supported UTCs but that Gove had opposed them.
I am very proud of UTCs outstanding destination data. Last year, across all UTCs, we had 1,292 leavers at 18, only five of whom became “NEETs” – not in education, employment and training. 44 per cent went to university (compared to a national average of 38 per cent), while 29 per cent became apprentices (the national average is 8.4 per cent). While the unemployment rate for 18-year-olds is 11.5 per cent, for graduates of UTCs it is 0.5 per cent.
This success represents big savings for the Treasury.
Last year the Royal Navy started a higher apprentice scheme for 18-year-olds, paying a salary of £28,500. 130 candidates applied; UTC students won 16 of the 18 places. Clearly the students' combination of academic A-levels with technical qualifications and skills stood them in good stead.
In September a UTC is to open in Portsmouth, sponsored by the Royal Navy. The Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock, has said: “UTCs are essential and we support them, as they provide engineers and technicians which the Royal Navy needs.”
The Royal Navy are not alone in their approval: more than 600 companies support UTCs. Leeds Chamber of Commerce led the team that opened a UTC in Leeds last September, and the Doncaster Chamber, led by Dan Fell, is applying for one too. As he puts it:“Doncaster’s economy is growing and many of its anchor businesses in sectors such as rail, engineering and construction are bullish about their prospects. This is, however, undermined by long term systemic issues that have created a shortfall in technical skills; this shortfall is becoming ever more acute and could hamper business growth”.
Dr Adam Marshall, the Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce, has also said: “UTCs are needed to bridge the gap between the world of education and the world of work”.
Justine Greening is the first Education Secretary who likes UTCs. She visited one in Didcot and described it as “brilliant". I also accompanied her to the opening of one in Scarborough last month where we saw first hand the enthusiasm of local employers. One such employer was GCHQ who, having struggled to recruit the workers they needed, sponsored a Cyber Security Suite at the college.
Justine Greening has decided to help UTCs recruit at age 14 – something that has always been difficult for us – by changing the law to require all local authorities to write to parents of 13-year-old children about UTCs that might be attractive to their children. She is also going to change the law to allow principals of UTCs to visit local schools and tell students about some of the opportunities available at their colleges. This is a big step forward in improving careers advice.
UTCs take in some youngsters who are totally disengaged – some with personal difficulties, who have largely written off their education. I am always delighted when UTCs manage to transform their life chances – the letters we receive from grateful parents can be very moving.
There are now over 11,000 students in 48 UTCs. Our GCSE results improve from year to year. Five more colleges will open in September, including in Portsmouth and Hull, which are already over-subscribed.
In a small number of cases failure in leadership by principals and governing bodies has resulted in UTC closures – 6 in total. Our team identifies weaknesses at an early stage and recommends significant changes, but we have no power to insist upon these – if we had, we would certainly have saved four of them.
Every attempt to improve technical and hands-on vocational learning since 1870 has failed. Most were killed by snobbery. But UTCs will succeed because students want them, employers like them and the economy needs them – no matter what Michael Gove thinks.