University technical colleges were designed to "combine outstanding hands-on learning with an excellent academic education", according to former education secretary Lord Baker, the mastermind behind the new wave of 14-19 technical schools.
But the project has been criticised by Ofsted for promoting "mediocrity" after the watchdog revealed that, of the 17 FE colleges that are the lead sponsors of a UTC, six were rated satisfactory by the watchdog in their most recent inspections. One, Southwark College, was classed as inadequate.
Ofsted's "satisfactory" category is being renamed "requires improvement" in September, with Prime Minister David Cameron insisting: "I don't want the word `satisfactory' to exist in our education system."
Currently, academies are not generally sponsored by schools that are only rated satisfactory. But the same standards are not being applied to the FE colleges sponsoring UTCs, even though the technical schools are also legally classed as academies.
Matthew Coffey, Ofsted's national director of learning and skills, warned that "quality has not always been treated as a critical factor in the decision-making process" behind approving UTCs. At Ofsted's inaugural annual learning and skills lecture earlier this month, he said: "As lead sponsor, surely we would expect them to role model excellence, not mediocrity."
Two UTCs - the JCB Academy in Staffordshire and the Black Country UTC in Walsall - are already open, while 32 more are due to open within the next two years. But the future of the Southwark UTC, which had been expected to open next year, has been cast into doubt.
Within weeks of Southwark College's bid being approved by the Department for Education, it was downgraded by Ofsted from "satisfactory" to "inadequate". The report acknowledged that Southwark had suffered a "very turbulent period", having had to slash pound;6 million from its budget to "save the college from insolvency". As a result, the performance of learners was described as "low".
Days later, it was announced that Southwark was to merge with neighbouring Lewisham College. The move, creating the new Lewisham and Southwark College, will be formally completed next week, but the Southwark UTC plans have been put on hold.
Mohammed Patwa, the former executive director at Southwark who headed its UTC application, revealed that the new college's governors would take "a breather" before deciding on the future of the project.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said UTCs were diverting funding from cash-strapped FE colleges, preventing them from raising standards. "The sector is under huge financial pressure from the government's spending cuts, and simply bolting on more parts ignores the basic fact that to achieve excellence institutions must be freed from the current funding shackles," she said.
"The government's support of UTCs seems more political than evidence- based. We cannot afford to have a situation where they are taking money away from existing colleges and where they are potentially duplicating existing facilities."
Charles Parker, chief executive of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which is promoting and developing plans for UTCs for the government, said the governance and curriculum of the technical colleges would be led by universities and employers, rather than colleges.
"UTCs are controlled by employers and universities that are in the mix," he said. "While FE colleges have been agile in making approaches and getting groups together, the UTCs are legal entities that will never be controlled by FE colleges.
"UTCs will not be a branch of FE; they will not be doing FE colleges' job for them. They are led by a broader partnership, and it is the universities and employers who will be making the governance and curriculum decisions."
2 UTCs are currently open.
32 more UTCs have been approved to open within the next two years.
17 of the UTC bids are led by FE colleges.
6 of those colleges are rated satisfactory.
1 is rated inadequate.
Photo credit: Richard Lea-Hair
Original headline: March of `mediocrity': Ofsted hits out at new technical colleges