The government has spent hundreds of millions of pounds creating a new wave of technical schools but more than one in six has already closed, they are less than half full and are underperforming compared with other secondaries, a spending watchdog has revealed.
A new National Audit Office report highlights concerns about both the standards and financial viability of University Technical Colleges, which the Department for Education has spent £792 million on since the programme first launched.
Ten of the first 58 UTCs to open have already closed, and the 48 that were open at the start of this year were operating at 45 per cent capacity, the spending watchdog said today.
Quick read: Damning report calls for overhaul of UTCs
Background: UTCs need help recruiting students
The NAO also highlights the Department for Education's concerns about the financial viability of 13 UTCS this year.
Its investigation notes that at the start of the academic year, almost half of UTCs were rated less than "good" by Ofsted.
The 52 per cent of UTCs being rated as either "good" or "outstanding" compares with 76 per cent of all secondary schools.
And there were 4,863 students attending UTCs that were considered to be "inadequate" or "requiring improvement" by inspectors.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "£792 million has been spent but UTCs are running under capacity, often perform less well than other secondary schools and just under half of those inspected either 'require improvement' or are 'inadequate'.
"UTCs were set up to improve technical education but 17 per cent of UTCs that opened have since closed, leaving hard-pressed local authorities to find alternative places for the students affected.
"This report provides further evidence as to why the Department for Education is my top department of concern."
The UTC programme was launched in 2010, with the aim of employers and universities working together to provide a high-quality technical education. Most of the £792 million the DfE has spent on the initiative between 2010-11 and 2018-19 has been on capital grants, the NAO's report says.
The report also says that UTCs have performed less well than other schools in a number of measures of performance at GCSE level.
A smaller proportion of pupils gain a grade 5 or above in English and maths GCSEs. In 2017-18, 28 per cent of UTC students reached this threshold compared with 44 per cent of students in all state-funded mainstream schools.
Fewer UTC students were entered for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – a measure that recognises students who are entered for a suite of core academic GCSEs: English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – with 6 per cent of pupils taking these courses in 2017-18 compared with 39 per cent of students in all state-funded schools.
UTCs also scored lower on the Progress 8 measure, which takes into account the progress pupils make between the ages of 11 and 16.
However, the report does note that the DfE does not expect UTCs to enter the same numbers of students for the EBacc as they provide specialist technical education, and the Department does not see Progress 8 as the most important measure for UTCs as students typically join one of these schools at age 14.
The report also highlights how UTCs pay an annual licence fee to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust which has supported the creation of these schools. The fee almost doubled from £5,500 to £10,000 this year.
Responding to the NAO report, Lord Baker, chair of the trust, said: "This report records the price of everything and the value of nothing. UTCs should be judged by the success of their students becoming apprentices, studying Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects at a university and getting a job as a technician or an engineer.
"For that we have the best destination data of any schools in the country. Because of this, the Department has encouraged us to make applications for new UTCs and we are working with local employers and universities for the next round in November.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We have been clear that the department is committed to ensuring people have access to high-quality technical education across the country.
"UTCs are helping to deliver on that, with 21 per cent of pupils progressing into apprenticeships after completing their post-16 education, more than double the national average.
"As this report recognises, we have taken significant action to support and raise the profile of UTCs to make sure they continue to play a role in our diverse education system and provide the skills that employers need."