When plans for a new wave of university technical colleges (UTCs) was announced by chancellor George Osborne in March, FE colleges could have been forgiven for casting a nervous glance over their shoulders. The institutions have been designed to focus on technical, as well as academic, learning. Colleges, it seemed, were going to have a fight on their hands to remain the standard-bearers for vocational learning.
But ahead of the announcement expected next month about the latest batch of UTCs to get the go-ahead, FE Focus has learnt that, perhaps surprisingly, colleges are in the vanguard of Lord Baker's revolution. Of the 37 applications received by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust (BDET), which promotes and administers the UTC project, around three- quarters involve a college; in many cases, the FE institution is the UTC's lead sponsor. And with dozens more expected to open across the country in the next few years, the sector's influence over the new breed of 14-19 schools looks set to grow stronger.
BDET chief executive Peter Mitchell admits that he has been taken aback by the warm reaction UTCs have received from the FE sector. "I am, and I'll tell you why I am: it's because I'm an old secondary headteacher. As secondary heads, we're really quite interested in the children in our schools. It's a breath of fresh air to talk to most FE principals, who are concerned about young people in their area. There is a really different attitude," he said.
Colleges have, by necessity, had to evolve rapidly and regularly in recent years, and it is this receptiveness to new ideas that Mr Mitchell believes is behind the surge in interest. "They look at the bigger picture. They are bigger institutions. If they lose 20 students to a UTC, it's not a big issue, is it? And they could provide back-office staff and so on . I've been very impressed with colleges' attitude. They are a bit more entrepreneurial; they have to respond to things a bit more rapidly," he added.
The first UTC, the JCB Academy in Staffordshire, opened its doors last year, and was joined earlier this month by the Black Country UTC in Walsall. Bids for UTCs in Aston, Greenwich and Hackney have also been approved. In his budget speech earlier this year, Mr Osborne announced that 24 more UTCs would be created. Eventually, Mr Mitchell anticipates there will be over 100.
Walsall College is the Black Country UTC's lead sponsor. "They wouldn't have been able to do it without us," claims principal Jat Sharma. The project came about, he explains, because of an engineering skills gap in the region. "The Black Country has a very strong pedigree and was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, but this is dropping fast. We had to recognise and re-engineer that type of learning."
The scheme, also sponsored by Wolverhampton University, is not short of support from the business community: 40 employers are on board, ranging from small local firms to mobile-phone giant Siemens, which sponsors the uniform and sports kits. Mr Sharma describes the UTC as an "educational business", and with some justification - students have shorter holidays than their peers at local schools and work from 8.30am to 5pm.
"They are tired when they leave, believe you me, but that's how it works in the world of business," Mr Sharma said.
The closure of nearby Sneyd Community School gave the UTC a home, and it opened its doors this month with 120 students - well above its 90-pupil target. It will eventually have 480 learners, with the potential to expand to 600, funding permitting.
While describing the college's role as being a "critical friend" offering and advice and support to the UTC, Mr Sharma admits the partnership has its drawbacks, with the college having already lost learners - and funding - to the new institution. But he is enthusiastic about its benefits.
"We knew there could be a risk we would lose students to the UTC, but we accepted that. We're looking at the bigger picture. We see the UTC as complementing us, not contradicting us. We have brought our business acumen and brought our influence to the curriculum. It's bringing genuine life chances for students to experience a truly vocational curriculum."
But while the Government is currently providing enthusiasm and funding aplenty, Mr Sharma admits he has fears for other institutions which follow in his college's footsteps. "We were guinea pigs. There was a momentum behind the UTC, and money was provided. But there is real funding pressure on FE colleges, so it could be more difficult in future. What will colleges be able to give?" he said.
As the old adage goes, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. While forward-thinking colleges seem to be treating UTCs as partners rather than rivals, not all of them have the luxury - or the finances - to open UTCs themselves. How many colleges will be able to embrace their new competitors with open arms remains to be seen.
The teaching unions have already expressed concerns about the UTC project. NUT general secretary Christine Blower warned it would create a "two-tier system, with technical schools being seen as the poor cousin", and said that asking 14-year-olds to choose their career paths so early was "unacceptable".
The University and College Union fears the expansion could lead to FE colleges receiving less cash. "We fear they will divert money away from FE colleges, reintroduce selection at 14 and create a two-tier system," general secretary Sally Hunt said.
2 - UTCs open
3 - UTCs already approved
24 - more UTCs to open by 2014
100 - UTCs predicted by Lord Baker to open by the next election.