School leaders in my area are getting to grips with a major change in the 14-18 landscape. I hope it is one they will come to value and celebrate.
This month, after three years of intensive planning, South Wiltshire University Technical College in Salisbury welcomed its first 200 future scientists and engineers. That number will treble over the next two years. Among the first cohort are 108 Year 10s – this was our maximum for year one and we have a waiting list. I am proud to be leading this exciting initiative as its principal.
None of these Year 10s was expecting to change school at 14, and very few had heard of UTCs until recently. Yet 108 students from 24 secondary schools have transferred to a new and untested institution, in some cases travelling for an hour to get there. This is a courageous choice and I doubt I would have had the guts to do it when I was their age.
New kid on the block
Local school leaders are not all comfortable with the advent of the UTC, although I have encountered nothing but courtesy from them. The pressure on all leaders is immense and an unexpected fall in key stage 4 numbers only adds to this.
Occasionally, reports of what some schools say to their students frustrate me (girls being told they are too bright to be engineers, for example). But I can empathise. Leaders and teachers make an enormous emotional investment in their institutions and are understandably convinced that students will benefit from remaining in them.
One of my jobs is to persuade those leaders that we are not a threat; rather we are a partner to local schools. It’s a job my fellow UTC principals have had to do across the country, and a successful model of partnership is emerging.
The right fit
The first task is to make clear that UTCs are built on a bespoke model that meets the needs of some students exactly. But they are not right for everyone. We are not a “rival” school; we do things differently. South Wiltshire UTC is backed by the University of Southampton and some of the area’s best employers.
Our partners are actively involved in students’ day-to-day learning. They set practical business challenges, provide guest lecturers and mentors, coach students during practical work, run competitions and provide students with work placements.
Our biologists will meet specialists who train Ebola nurses; they will build an unmanned air vehicle when they study the biology of flight. Our engineers will meet experts who redesigned troop carriers to counter improvised explosive devices; they will be mentored by apprentices who are responsible for keeping jet aircraft safe.
This will happen as they work to achieve recognised qualifications. Our key stage 4 students will study a full set of GCSEs and technical qualifications that satisfy Progress 8 and could lead to an English Baccalaureate. Our sixth-formers will take A-levels and level 3 technical awards, yet will learn through live project briefs. Many will take an extended project qualification that is mentored by an employer.
To some students, this sounds like the sort of learning they are desperate for, even when they are already progressing well. “Some” is important here. The UTC is perfect for some learners but not for everyone. This is nothing to do with academic ability; it’s to do with self-aware and empowered students deciding that they are ready to progress towards their eventual careers.
Mapping out a career path
The second task for UTC principals is to give credit to the teachers who have brought them to this point. We have put together a fantastic curriculum for our students, but the courage and commitment that it takes for students to make the leap to a UTC were developed in their former schools. Our partner schools should be extremely proud of a 14-year-old who knows the broad career path they want and has the guts to go for it.
The third task for UTCs is to prove the benefit we can bring to the family of schools in our area. Our teaching staff are all qualified and many bring real expertise from outside teaching – for example in applied psychology, Formula 1 engineering, armed forces training and applied electronics.
Our numerous employer partners are delighted to help establish the next generation of scientists and engineers, and we want to work with subject specialists across our area to spread applied learning. Within a month of opening, we will host an employer-led event for local schools with the aim of encouraging girls to consider technology-based careers.
If we can get to a point where South Wiltshire UTC is seen as a specialist resource for the whole area – and where local schools celebrate students who progress to our UTC – I will know we have got it right. But that could take a year or two.
Gordon Aitken is principal of South Wiltshire UTC
What is a UTC?
University technical colleges are technical secondary schools for 14- to 18-year-olds. They offer a broad curriculum that combines an academic education with technical and practical learning.
UTCs teach one or more technical specialisms that address skills shortages in a particular region. These include engineering, manufacturing, life sciences, product design, digital technologies and the built environment.
Seven UTCs opened across England this month. For more information, see www.utcolleges.org