'UTCs can help to close skills gaps in the North'

1st February 2018 at 15:10
University technical colleges can play a big role in addressing the concerns about skills shortages outlined in today's Northern Powerhouse Partnership report, writes Cherry Tingle

Today’s report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership highlights that outcomes for young people in the North are not good. There is no getting away from that reality, but it is simply not good enough for students.

The report also stresses how far behind disadvantaged students in the North are, and that these issues lead to employers not having a highly skilled workforce.

I believe university technical colleges (UTCs) can, and are already starting to, play a big role in addressing the reports’ concerns. For example, at the Energy Coast UTC, on the North-West coast, in Cumbria, and as far away from a motorway as you can get in England, results are above national average and the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students’ outcomes is predicted to be tiny – much smaller than the national average – this year.

UTCs place a very high emphasis on academic success – in common with other schools. Students deserve no less. But we also place a very high emphasis on other skills – important skills that will support and help our young people in accessing the world of work and higher education (HE). Skills that this report and the CBI know are critical. UTCs deliver this.

UTCs are different

At a UTC you would see things which are different – things which might explain why 26 per cent of all UTC leavers go straight into apprenticeships, as compared with 5 per cent nationally, and why 78 per cent of those going to higher education go into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) related courses – against a national figure of 22 per cent. At the Energy Coast UTC, 88 per cent of Year 13 leavers gained apprenticeships, with 26 per cent of those being degree-level – and the remainder of students going into HE or employment. The North could lead in this area, as the report suggests.

In a UTC, students work with state-of-the-art technical equipment and facilities usually only available to students at HE level or to skilled employees in large companies. Our students gain experience of a long working day – as they are with us from 8.30am to 5.15pm. Local and national employers adapt the curriculum and work with our students on real-life projects – every single day. Employers deliver courses at the UTC and students also study on site in employment settings. Our students understand what work means. Students explicitly learn about, develop and improve their employability skills; focussing on how to develop resilience, leadership, independence, etc.

Parity with academic routes

But that is not all that UTCs do. This report highlights the need for vocational education to have parity with more traditional academic education and for employers to use their levy to move towards becoming the world’s leading centre for degree apprenticeships.

The report proposes, among other things, an increase in early years funding, the establishment of a Northern Powerhouse Schools Improvement Board, and for Northern businesses to mentor young people. We also need another recommendation – the government, Department for Education and Ofsted need to look at how UTCs and other technical education providers are held to account. We need to be held to account, of course, but the current accountability measure – Progress 8 – measures progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, and we are only responsible for two-fifths of that time. Many regular schools have changed their curriculum to fit the measure – what gets measured is what gets done. UTCs don’t do this – they deliver all the high-quality academic courses in English, maths and sciences, but then work with employers to develop the rest of their curriculum to meet employment needs. Those successes are not measured under the current accountability framework. A commitment to a fair accountability and inspection framework would be a start to valuing vocational and academic education equally.

Recruitment and funding

In addition, the government needs to address recruitment – to teaching in general and to technical education in particular. This is a national problem but really acute in some of the remote geographical areas in the North. As an example, a major national TV news company wanted to come and film our success in getting young people into apprenticeships – we were all set – and then they realised how long it would take them to get to us, and they pulled out.

Results in the North are not yet good enough in all schools, but in some schools and UTCs results are excellent. Money is being brought into the area through multi-academy trusts, but they do not always have the expertise. We need schools and UTCs that equip young people with both great academic results and the right technical and vocational skills to support others – and this needs to be properly funded.

Cherry Tingle is principal of the Energy Coast UTC

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