Can university technical colleges survive without joining academy chains?
Last year, Nick Boles, then skills minister, praised the Leigh UTC in Parliament, describing it as a “particularly good example” of a UTC, “not least because it is part of a very successful multi-academy trust (MAT)”.
He added: “That is a situation that we want replicated across the university technical college movement, because UTCs are stronger inside multi-academy trusts.”
Boles was echoing Department for Education guidance on opening a UTC, published the previous October, which “strongly encouraged” applicants to think about “joining up” with either a MAT – formally or by working in partnership – or a “high-performing, formal school-to-school partnership”.
According to DfE data, 42 open or closed UTCs are or were supported by a single-academy trust (SAT), compared to 14 supported by multi-academy trusts.
Of the 17 SAT-supported UTCs that have been inspected, all but five have been judged “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.
Of the seven MAT-supported UTCs that have been inspected, all have been graded “good” or “outstanding”.
While the numbers in this analysis are small, they suggest that UTCs that are part of a MAT are, overall, more successful than those that do not.
Yet, of the five new UTCs opened this September, only two are supported by MATs. Three are supported by SATs.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, thinks joining a MAT could address one of the key struggles facing UTCs – the need to “hive off” pupils at 14, which she believes is unpopular with parents and pupils.
“A more viable future for UTCs is to become a hub for specialist courses and subjects that they can provide within a wider range of schools,” she says. “That may involve joining a MAT, so you are not saying at 14 ‘you have to change school’, but ‘you can take a course at this school and develop an area of expertise a get a worthwhile qualification’.”
That choice facing pupils and parents would seem less “huge” and “might well raise the intake and address the issue of gender imbalance,” she says.
For Charles Parker, chief executive of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, UTCs can survive outside MATs, although a number are “seriously considering” joining one.
“There’s no doubt that when you are starting up a small, different kind of school, you need friends,” he says. “There’s no doubt that a school that’s designed to have 600 pupils is not as financially effective as a school that is twice that size.”
UTCs need to work with other schools and other organisations that can help them to create economies of scale as well as sharing teachers, he believes.
But, he adds: “MATs are not the answer to everybody’s prayers. It does work in some cases. What does not work is a kind of forced merger where because ministers want MATs and want to consolidate the system, you are forced into a MAT.”
His view is echoed by Nick Crew, the executive principal of the two UTCs that belong to the Sheffield UTC Academy Trust.
“My view is that a multi-academy trust can be a good thing, if you have a shared ethos,” he says. “UTCs are very different. What I always say is how do you get your capacity to improve, and the economies of scale.”
For him, teaching school alliances or federations are alternatives that could help prevent a UTC from becoming isolated, by giving it the capacity to improve as well as links to education experts.
And for a UTC thinking of joining a MAT, he says it needs to know that it will be able to keep what makes it distinctive as a university technical college.