UTC closures are only a `setback', boss insists

24th April 2015 at 01:00
Chief executive says he is confident about the programme's future

University technical colleges are not a "vanity project" and will continue to spread across the country despite the "setback" of two institutions closing in less than a year, the head of the programme has insisted.

The closure of Black Country UTC was announced last week, just nine months after it emerged that Hackney UTC would be shutting its doors. Both institutions will close in August.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, has led calls for a review of the programme, questioning whether UTCs are providing value for money or whether there is enough demand for them.

But, speaking exclusively to TES, Charles Parker, chief executive of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which oversees UTCs, dismissed the comments.

"This is not a vanity project," he said. "We are doing this because there's an explicit shortage of young people [with] the education we provide in UTCs. There is a real demand from universities and employers. We are not doing this because we are vain but because we must."

Mr Parker said the trust now had a better understanding of how to develop a successful UTC. "Any programme of this sort is never going to be entirely free of setbacks," he added. "I think [the closure of the Black Country UTC] is a setback but I'm convinced we have learned lessons and I'm very confident about the future.

"I don't see any more UTCs closing. That's not to say we won't have challenges with such a new programme. We have learned how to lessen the chances of failure and increase the chances of success.

"We need to get a really clear understanding about the local economy, so we are able to be as accurate as we can in our assessment, so we can know whether this new type of schooling will work. We haven't always got that right."

Mr Parker said he would be ready to assist with any inquiry into the programme.

UTCs offer technical education to 14- to 19-year-olds, specialising in subjects where there are skills shortages. Thirty UTCs are currently in operation, with 20 more due to open by 2017.

The Black Country UTC, which is sponsored by Walsall College and the University of Wolverhampton, was only the second college to open under the programme in 2011. The college's governors blamed the decision to close on a recent "disappointing" inspection, a fall in pupil numbers and "financial challenges".

Low pupil numbers are also behind the closure of the flagship Hackney UTC in London, and several other UTCs are understood to be undersubscribed.

Some of the more successful UTCs are sponsored by FE colleges, or groups that include FE and higher education institutions and employers.

Sally Dicketts, chief executive of Activate Learning (sponsor of UTC Reading and UTC Oxfordshire in Didcot, which is due to open in September), said: "I wouldn't damn UTCs but I wouldn't necessarily put one in every city.

"In some areas they may be just what you need, but in others, not. They are not suitable for all young people.

"It's about student numbers and the area. The question to ask is, are you on a growth trajectory with students? Because if you aren't you will hit problems."

Despite the setbacks, the UTC programme still enjoys broad political support. Last year, an independent report commissioned by the Labour Party said UTCs should be a "priority" when setting up new schools, and recommended that 100 more should be established by 2020 to help close the skills gap (see bit.lyEconomyReport).

And last week the Conservative Party manifesto promised a UTC "within reach of every city".

Gill Clipson, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "For UTCs, or indeed any new institutions, to be successful in recruiting a significant number of students, there needs to be a consistent demand across all the necessary age groups.

"We hope that the next government will factor this into their plans before opening any new institutions."

`Students leave with incredible prospects'

UTC Sheffield, which is sponsored by Sheffield Hallam University and the Sheffield College, has proved so successful that a second UTC is being planned for the city. It has capacity for 600 students but currently has 440, although it is expected to be fully subscribed by September 2016.

"We have demonstrated that the model can work," says Andrew Cropley, executive director for strategy planning at the Sheffield College. "Students who come [to UTC Sheffield] will leave with incredible prospects. There's no reason why that model can't be replicated across the country.

"The benefits we have reaped as a college, in terms of reputation and deeper employer engagement, have been really good for us."


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