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UTCs can be the answer to a wide range of problems.

Byline: Stephen Lambert

THE academic-vocational divide has bedevilled the UK's educational system since Victorian times.

Vocational education has been perceived as second best to a traditional academic curriculum by Britain's elites. For the 'left behind' urban towns of the North and the Midlands to prosper economically we must escape this mind-set and give the new vocationalism the status it deserves. University Technology Colleges may be the answer. Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944 established a post war tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools. In reality what we got was a divisive bipartite system with technical schools seen as the poor relation.

Although further education colleges have delivered the bulk of technical and job-related training from the age of 16 through apprenticeships, NVQs, City and Guilds and BTEC type certificates/diplomas, the sector has now been acknowledged by Britain's political class. Yet it's still viewed by some private school and Oxbridge educated ministers and senior civil servants as the Cinderella service for "other people's children''.

Of course FE still has a vitally important role to play to meet the needs of a changing economy and to address the aspirations of thousands of youngsters. Many working-class boys and girls still want to be sparkies, brickies, chefs, travel agents, beauty therapists and so on. It was partly for this reason that University Technical Colleges came into being.

University Technical Colleges were the brainchild of Lords Baker and Dearing a decade ago. They still command cross party support. Their mission was to help grow the talent pipeline by providing the next generation of engineers, technicians and scientists. Designed for young people aged 14-19, UTCs were to deliver a predominately vocational education alongside academic subjects. Backed by large employers and universities, UTCs aimed to give young people the technical skills industry needed.

They focus on technical specialisms such as healthcare, computer science, renewable energy and marine engineering. They are nonselective and non-fee-paying. They have a longer day, starting at 8.30am and finishing at 5pm, to give learners the ethos of a working environment. There are now 50 UTCS with two in the North East - in Newcastle and County Durham.

But a new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) claims UTCs have failed to deliver for both young people and the national economy.

True, their implementation has been uneven and patchy with several hit by closures, poor recruitment, negative Ofsteds, a bad press, below average GCSE results and a stark gender imbalance.

Until recently UTCs have struggled to recruit pupils aged 14. Few pupils want to change schools having made friends from the age of 11. With funding a priority, few schools want their students to leave. Most schools start their GCSE courses in year 9 - therefore some pupils are reluctant to change school for a UTC.

There's some evidence to suggest that youngsters who attend UTCs are more likely to come from lowincome family backgrounds, having made poor progress in primary school. In short too many have been failed by the educational system. Between 2013 to 2017, seven UTCs closed. By 2016, six of 10 UTCs had been rated by Ofsted as either inadequate or requiring improvement.

For the radical left they have been dismissed as vanity projects that don't work. For others they were brought in too fast without adequate preparation and planning. But that doesn't mean they are a bad idea.

For some pupils, a traditional academic education manifested in a rigid national curriculum is a big turn-off. Some under-achieve. Kids of low-skilled parents still leave school with poor qualifications. A more vocational type curriculum combined with some academic subjects may meet their needs and cut truancy rates.

Although unemployment has fallen sharply since 1975 1.4 million are still jobless in 2018. Hidden unemployment is estimated by the TUC to be well over 2m.

According to research by Robin Simmons of Huddersfield University 808,000 young adults aged 16 to 24 are NEET - not in education, employment or training.

UTCs working in partnership with FE colleges, apprenticeship agencies, local authorities and devolved assemblies may be the way forward. Get the leadership and governance right and UTCs can succeed. Last year 97% of 18-year olds leaving UTCs progressed to higher education, work or an apprenticeship. 2% took a gap year. Only 1% became NEET. The NEET rate today across the North is 15%.

Subjects crucial to the UK's economic success in the digital and creative industries are less likely to be studied in secondary schools. According to Ofqual, the number of GCSE entries in design and technology has dropped by 42%. Entries in computing and ICT have fallen. The numbers of entries for A-level or Btec National level 3 in engineering has collapsed to just 10%. T-levels, to give parity of esteem to A-levels don't come on stream until 2020 and too few parents, kids and SMEs are aware of them. Yet employers and civic leaders complain of skill shortages.

UTCs need to be actively supported by all to become high quality, high status providers of technical and vocational education. They have a crucial role to play in a post-Brexit economy and they may have to adapt by taking 13-16-year-olds. | Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and a former FE lecturer who taught on vocational programmes in the North East.

808,000 young adults aged 16 to 24 are NEET - not in education, employment or training "
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 18, 2018
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