This month the Education Funding Agency has issued financial notices to improve to two University Technical Colleges; Daventry and Buckinghamshire. Interestingly, both are cited in a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper on UTCs (No 07250 issued 15th March 2016) as having relatively low recruitment figures in their early years of operation. Indeed, Daventry, according to the local newspaper, is currently considering moving from its current 14-18 UTC model to become an 11-18 school, presumably to boost numbers and help with school places in the area. Nationally, three of the first 41 UTCs have either closed or are in the process of doing so, as are also some of the other 14-18 Studio Schools. However, a further 20 UTCs are in the planning stage.
So, might UTCs be set to become the ‘De Lorean’ of the education world; a good idea, but not financially viable? Having visited the Didcot UTC recently, I can see the attraction of the concept as supported by Lord Baker. But, they do run into a number of challenges. Firstly, changing school at 14 isn’t a normal part of the school scene, so the UTCs have to persuade young people and their parents that the change is worthwhile. Secondly, the schools that they are departing from will lose cash for every pupil that transfers. After four years a school losing ten pupils a year could be £200,000 down on income, but still be trying to offer the same curriculum to its remaining pupils. Lose twenty pupils a year and the cash burn is even more concerning. Some schools might fight to keep their pupils or only be interested in losing those that cost more to educate than they generate in revenue.
As each UTC has its own brand, there isn’t even a coherent national offering and some UTCs may look more attractive to pupils with an interest in vocational courses rather than academic prowess. This raises the question as to whether or not these pupils could have been more cost effectively educated by the further education sector. Certainly, a school that gains a reputation for only educating part of the ability range is less likely to flourish, especially if that part is the less able group. UTCs are also probably not helped, especially in rural areas, by the fact that there is no support with transport costs unless the UTC is able to provide assistance. This isn’t an issue in London, where TfL provides free transport for all school pupils, but it is in the rest of the country where the cost of attending a UTC may run into several hundred pounds a year compared with staying put at the school you joined at eleven.
The government will need to work out how to make UTCs a success if they want the concept to flourish in the manner that Lord Baker intended. This will be a challenge while the government continues to believe in the market approach to education. Funding these schools differently to other schools would result in cries of ‘foul’ from the school losing pupils at 14, but as we have seen with Daventry and Buckinghamshire, the risk of not doing so is that the UTCs will struggle to maintain financial solvency, especially as they are operating in areas of the curriculum with above average teaching costs in both revenue and capital terms compared with say an arts based curriculum. ln a school offering the full curriculum, expensive subjects can be balanced with less costly ones. Alternatively, if you are a free school, you can opt only for a cheap languages and arts subject curriculum and eschew the expensive science and technology areas, however useful they might be to the national economy.
Unless there is a real desire by government to make the UTC idea work for the 14-18 age group the concept seems potentially at risk of becoming like Lord Baker’s earlier foray into this area, City Technology Colleges, doomed to be little more than a sideshow in the educational fairground.