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'UTCs' shortcomings are down to their design'

University technical colleges struggle in league tables, but it's not just down to poor performance, says David Robinson

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University technical colleges struggle in league tables, but it's not just down to poor performance, says David Robinson

In August, Neil McIvor, the Department for Education’s chief statistician, sat down to pen out a letter to Ed Humpherson, the UK Statistics Authority’s (UKSA) director general for regulation. 

He was responding to concerns raised by the UKSA on the suitability of the DfE’s school performance measure, Progress 8, for measuring the success of 14-19 institutions. It was claimed that Progress 8, which looks at pupil’s progress between age 11 and age 16, was misleading when applied to institutions that admit pupils at 14 rather than 11. 

It was also argued that given many of these institutions, including university technical colleges (UTCs), were explicitly set up to offer technical-focused provision, Progress 8’s focus on academic subjects put these institutions at a disadvantage. 

Indeed, under Progress 8 UTC students make almost a grade less progress compared to other students. But is this really a fair reflection of their performance? This is one of the questions the Education Policy Institute has considered in our new research on UTCs. 

Bias against UTCs?

So is the Progress 8 measure of performance biased against UTCs? To answer this question, we broke the measure down to understand how UTCs perform in delivering different kinds of provision. We took into account that UTC students tend to take fewer Key Stage 4 subjects, looked at their results only in English and maths GCSEs, and considered measures that allow for the inclusion of the less academic subjects that are more likely to be studied at a UTC. 

The results? Whichever way we cut the data, UTCs still come out with poor key stage 4 performance. 

We then went further by using data on the ability of UTC students upon entry to the UTC, aged 14, to create a version of Progress 8 that overcomes the issue of Progress 8 using age 11 as a starting point. Again UTCs come out some way below average, with UTC students estimated to make three quarters of grade’s less progress during key stage 4 than students in other institutions. So while it may be the case that Progress 8 exaggerates the degree of poor performance, UTCs are nevertheless poor performing. 

GCSE resits: above average

This may matter less if the end of key stage 4 was merely a point along the journey for UTC students, with provision focusing more on students’ outcomes at age 18 or 19, rather than at 16. We found some evidence of this, with UTC students performing well-above average when retaking English and maths GCSEs. 

However, just over half of students who complete key stage 4 then go on to drop out of UTCs before the end of the following year. Clearly, poor key stage 4 results do matter if most students don’t spend much time in the UTC beyond this point. These high student dropout rates also call into question whether UTCs can truly be considered as providing a full 14-19 education. 

The picture for those who do successfully complete the move to key stage 5 is more mixed. While UTC students taking A levels and other academic qualifications tend to make below average progress, those taking more technical qualifications tend to perform around the average. Importantly, UTC students tend to make better progress than those in the further education colleges that might otherwise have been the alternative for these young people. 

UTCs have a role to play

UTC students (or at least those who survive the step up to key stage 5) also appear to benefit from the close relationship UTCs have with industry; almost three times the national average go on to take up an apprenticeship. Looking at the labour market, our analysis also confirms that UTCs are training students in industries where there is an expected growth in high-skill technical jobs. 

Given the many difficulties UTCs face in recruiting sufficient students at age 14, their poor key stage 4 performance and that their key stage 5 performance is often better than that of further education colleges, we argue that the government should consider moving the admissions age for UTCs from 14 to 16. 

UTCs could then focus on delivering high-quality existing technical qualifications and, eventually, T levels relevant to local and national skill needs. With UTCs offering only 16-19 provision, this would present a great opportunity for them to deliver differentiated, and high-quality, level 3 technical provision. 

DfE’s response to the UKSA’s concerns this year was simply to add a footnote to the Progress 8 performance table ratings for UTCs. Our research suggests that the government may need to go much further to put these institutions and their students on a stronger footing.

David Robinson is director for post-16 and skills at the Education Policy Institute

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