More than half of students in university technical colleges (UTCs) drop out between the ages of 16 and 17, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has revealed in a “damning” report that calls for their overhaul.
Students who remain beyond age 16 are far less likely to complete their studies than those in other types of school – particularly pupils with lower GCSE results, special educational needs and disadvantaged backgrounds.
UTC students also tend to make less progress than their peers, with only half achieving at least a pass in GCSE English and maths; they also perform poorly in all aspects of the Progress 8 measure, the study finds.
The report paints a grim picture of a flagship Conservative education policy aimed at training more students in practical qualifications, in a bid to close the UK’s skills gap.
“With low take-up, high drop-out rates and poor student progress, our research shows that the long-term sustainability of university technical colleges is becoming increasingly uncertain,” said David Robinson, the EPI’s director of post-16 and skills.
“It is clear that UTCs require fundamental remodelling. In order to remain viable institutions, they should consider admitting students at 16, focus on existing high-quality technical qualifications, and become a central component of the delivery of new T levels."
Damian Hinds has made technical education a priority of his tenure as education secretary, promising to create a system “to rival Germany’s” and committing to spend £38 million on new T-level qualifications.
The Department for Education has also pledged nearly £330 million of capital spending on UTCs, nearly 60 of which have been opened since 2011 for pupils aged 14-19 who prefer a more technical curriculum.
But dwindling pupil numbers have already forced eight of them to close and one to convert to an academy. Another, which had just 128 students despite capacity for 600, is set to close in August 2019.
The EPI report says UTCs are still struggling to attract students, despite government pledges of extra cash for recruitment, and that a third of pupils are enrolled in 20 establishments with dwindling numbers.
Many also receive poor inspection outcomes from Ofsted: a fifth are rated inadequate, two out of five require improvement and only 4 per cent are deemed outstanding compared with 22 per cent of secondary schools.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teachers' union, said the report made for “damning reading”.
She said NEU analysis of five UTCs that have already closed down showed that they had cost the taxpayer £45 million in capital and opening costs, “which could have been invested instead in the wider schools system”.
"The NEU has said from the very start that UTCs were not viable. It was clear from the outset that seeking to attract pupils at age 14 was a policy doomed to failure," she added.
The EPI said further investment in UTCs "cannot at present be justified", and instead recommended changing the admission age to 16, turning them into flagship level 3 technical institutions and implementing better destination measures.
'Experiment that hasn't worked'
The new report by the EPI examines whether UTCs are providing the right skills for local and national economies.
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, dubbed UTCs "an experiment that hasn't worked".
"The Education Policy Institute's report shows in some detail that most UTCs underperform in terms of both under and over 16-year-olds. Given the high level of support given to them by the DfE and the capital funding allocated by the Treasury, this is obviously disappointing," he said.
“Colleges have worked effectively with the DfE to rationalise and improve their provision via the area-review process and are now preparing for the technical education reforms. What is needed now is not an unplanned addition of new institutions, but proper funding and a dose of planning.”
A DfE spokesperson said students leaving UTCs at Key Stage 4 were twice as likely to begin an apprenticeship compared to the national average, rising to three times as likely at Key Stage 5 compared to their peers at state schools.
“We have a diverse education system and University Technical Colleges are an important part of that, with the best providers teaching people the skills and knowledge that will help them secure good jobs in specialist technical sectors," the spokesperson added.