UTCs are a great option but the age of entry is a turn-off

6th October 2017 at 00:00
There is a lot to like about the 'vision' of university technical colleges, but not all children are ready to decide on their futures at age 13, says Sarah Simons

Delivering impartial careers information, advice and guidance is a statutory duty for all schools, but not all do it well. I’ve heard many a scare story over the years of the comical lengths some schools will go to in order to hang on to their 16-year-olds and funnel them straight into their sixth forms. In some schools, it’s almost like the needs, talents and aspirations of the individual are secondary to a bums-on-seats, cash-in-the-pot culture.

With this in mind, I was heartened to receive a letter from my local council to advise of all the options available to my son, who, at 13, has just moved into Year 9. It gives a clear breakdown of what university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools do, as well as information on the local offerings and what steps we should take if we’re interested in that route for our lad.

The idea of UTCs and studio schools sits well with those of us who value learning, regardless of the guise it takes. There’s a lot to like about a holistic vision of an academic, technical and practical education.

But though the concept is a welcome one – a proactive response to the conundrum of creating parity of esteem across the spectrum of learning – the reality is problematic. In particular, the age of entry. The transition from primary to secondary can be a traumatic event. In Year 6, these swaggering kings and queens of the climbing frame were top dogs of their school; 11-year-olds with a “been there, done that” attitude.

But, when they move to Big School, everything changes. All of a sudden, they are new pups. An intimidating building to get lost in, a too-big uniform of scratchy formality, new teachers, new subjects, new kids (big kids, scary kids). All of this and their hormones are about to start clattering like a marble in a washing machine.

Luckily, our lad seemed to pass unscathed into secondary and, two years in, he loves school. He puts effort into his studies and has a great set of mates. He’s happy, so we’re happy.

To start at a UTC at the age of 14, the decision would have to be made at 13. My house is regularly littered with 13-year-olds. They are many things: funny, irritating, clever, gobby, daft. What they are not is mature enough to make a decision that potentially narrows their field of learning and moves them towards a specific vocation.

In addition to the educational limitations, a bigger factor is the transition itself. Who would choose to go through that again? By the third year in secondary school, most kids are settled. They have the security that familiarity brings. So the only circumstances in which I could imagine uprooting my son from his school to start again at the age of 14 is if he were unhappy. That’s it. It would be a reactive response to a negative situation.

I know that these are simply our family’s specific circumstances. I know that a few UTCs and studio schools exist that are doing really well. And maybe there are some 13-year-olds who would want to start again. I just don’t know any.

Sarah Simons works in colleges in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat

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