The news that yet more UTCs are struggling to survive comes after reports of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as noted in a post last week. The idea of 14-18 schools specialising in science and technology, together with the accompanying studio school concept for a wider range of subjects, has merits, as their champions such as Lord Baker have always pointed out.
Sadly, the idea of depositing a cuckoo in the next of 11-16 and 11-18 schools in any area is fraught with difficulties. No schools wants to lose pupils at fourteen, unless that is they cost the school more to educate than they bring in as funding. Hence the struggle some UTCs have faced to recruit anything like a balanced intake, or in some cases an intake that would be large enough to make them financially viable.
As I reported earlier in the year, UTCs face extra running costs because they are delivering high cost subjects to largely examination age groups of pupils, but on a funding model that doesn’t take that fact into account. With the emergence of the now well documented problems across the sector, it is surely time for a review to decide whether to support the concept of a break at fourteen or engineer the existing schools back into the mainstream system to help cope with the rising secondary rolls over the next few years. Keeping open under-used schools while extra places are needed in the same locality is a waste of public money.
In many ways the 14-18 experiment is a good example of a market at work. Any new start-up venture has to compete with existing suppliers and often finds it a challenge unless they have the edge on design, price or technology. In this case, often despite spending lots of money on advertising, the 14-18 sector hasn’t caught the imagination of parents. Outside London, the fact that parents that didn’t face any travel costs to send their children to school would have to pay if their teenagers moved to a UTC might well have been a deterrent that the government could have found a way around: possibly by encouraging the UTCs to fund buses from key local centres.
If the UTCs are struggling to create a brand, then it seems likely that the studio school movement has even less definition and will only attract pupils where there is a strong local resolve to make such a school work. Nevertheless, there is merit in offering a fresh start at fourteen for some pupils, but the concept does need more thought. The involvement of the further education sector needs to be considered as part of any review, since colleges can offer an alternative structure for those seeking a curriculum post-14 that the average school cannot provide. Now FE is back under the wing of the DfE it should be easier to organise a coherent 14-18 offering.
However, any review might need to start by asking the question; at what age do we want specialisation to start? For if we want everyone to follow the same curriculum until sixteen, the need for separate schools after fourteen for some pupils is difficult to justify.