Time for a review of UTCS?

The news that yet more UTCs are struggling to survive comes after news of the over-representation of these schools at the top of the absence tables, as reported 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 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 much 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.

20 thoughts on “Time for a review of UTCS?

  1. UTCs were always a flawed concept. It was obvious recruiting at 14 would be difficult. They required pupils to choose a vocational route at 14. Schools, as you say, would be reluctant to lose pupils at the end of Year 9 (unless, of course, the pupils were those the school would be happy to lose).
    Provisional Progress 8 figures for 2016 have just been released. Not all UTCs have been around long enough to enter pupils for GCSEs. The results for those which did were as follows:

    4 close to national average
    4 below national average
    15 well below national average.

    Although the sample is too small to come to any conclusion about UTCs as a whole (and Progess 8 is flawed in any case), results so far seem a poor return for the high investment in UTCs at least at 14-16 level.

    It would be better to turn UTCs into 11-18 schools if there is need in the local area. If not, they could be turned into further education colleges provided there was need in the area. If need for neither exists, then they should be closed.

      • I’ve checked DfE School Performance Tables for all schools with ‘studio school’ in their name. Data for those which entered pupils for GCSEs in 2016 below:

        2 close to national average
        1 below national average
        13 well below national average

        Same caveats as above.

    • Neil,

      Thank you for your comments. I raised the issue of attendance at both UTCs and Studio Schools on this blog in past years when data was released for individual schools. I think there is a need to be clear what we want schools starting at 14 to do within the education system. Way back in 2002 I wrote a report for the Lib Dems asking whether a more general review of post-14 education would be a sensible move. The are many among the 50% not destined for higher education at 18 that might benefit from a fresh start at 14 and I think this is where Lord Baker was coming from with UTCs. However, it needs to be a model that is integrated into the system and not just created as a sector without any sensible long-term strategy for success. hence my call for a review.

      John Howson

    • Neil,

      Thank you for your critique of Progress 8 which succinctly describes its flaws. It appears UTCs are hit with a double whammy: your pupils spend the first three years prior to GCSEs in a different school and Progress 8 doesn’t fit the kind of education you are providing.
      These criticisms don’t just apply to UTCs. Any school where all pupils don’t take 8 GCSEs (or take the wrong combinations) will have lower P8 scores. This will apply particularly to schools with an intake skewed to the bottom of the ability range (often non-selective schools in selective areas).
      Progress 8 is crude. The only thing in its favour is that it’s fairer than the even cruder system of judging schools on the proportion gaining the benchmark of 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. But P8 will be used to judge schools (I’ve done it above albeit with caveats). Already the Schools Commissioner talks about giving ‘support’ to the 100 or so academies where P8 is well below the average (as opposed to sending in brokers to enforce academy conversion).
      In 2011, the OECD warned that too much emphasis was put on GCSE exam results in England. This risked negative impacts. No other country expects its pupils to take so many high-stake exams at 16. Where they exist at all, they are few in number and are used to decide upper secondary progression and not to judge schools.

      • Janet,
        Thank you for your helpful comment and thanks to Neil for starting this thread going. Could you send me a paper detailing the flaws with Progress8, specifically your reference to the wrong combination of subjects and its effects in areas where there is selection? Might it also explain the increase in exclusions in certain year groups?
        John Howson

    • Janet,

      Many thanks. as ever, using data that can helps schools dissect what they are doing well and where there is concerns for comparison purposes isn’t helpful. The aim must be to improve quality assurance not quality control. for too long governments have seen exposing failure as more rewarding that supporting success and identifying challenges. The pupil Premium was a step in the right direction but there is lots more still to do starting with building trust and morale among teachers.


  2. It is perhaps worth noting that since your article – less than 3 months ago – UTC’ s have continued to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons:
    Daventry & Tottenham have announced their closures
    Cambridge received an inadequate OFSTED rating
    serious issues around both recruitment & performance for Swindon & Manchester
    loss of a sponsor for Wigan
    Greenwich converting to an 11-18 school
    Bolton consulting on converting to an 11-18 school

    As a rightly aggrieved parent on the Save Daventry UTC website says – & I quote “what is the definition of an idiot?” And I think we all know the answer to that.

    Definitely time for a pause in the programme & reflection on what we want from it.

    • Roger,

      Thank you for your comment and the details of the changes.

      It is this sort of lack of planning that makes me fear for academies as well. the State cannot just let market forces play with the education of our children. Their futures are too precious for all of us. I think it is time for a complete review of the UTC/Studio School 14-18 programme.

      John Howson

  3. But what exactly is going to get this to happen? How many millions are to be wasted & how many parents & children let down before some sense starts to be applied?

  4. And another UTC shuts up shop after two years – Greater Manchester. And the same governance/management issues are in play as with Daventry: why were any pupils taken in September. And smooth transition – just what does that mean??

    • Roger,

      Yes, I saw that story and my guess is it won’t be the last. Following the review of FE the DfE should review 14-18 with the aim of creating a coherent approach. not fair on the pupils in these schools to let them linger on when they won’t be successful and are under-funded.

      John Howson

      • A very safe guess in my view. The names could probably already be written down. Hopefully we can now at least get any new ones halted. Not sure I agree that they are under-funded: they are too small – even when full – to ever be viable. But a full scale review – absolutely essential & urgently needed.

      • Roger,

        600 14-18 pupils should have been sufficient to fund a school, if they could have achieved those numbers. However, market forces worked against them. If you play by those rules, then closures are the consequences of failure. The problem is this isn’t about selling tins of baked beans, but the education of our young people. We cannot afford failure and need a system that works for all. Kenneth Baker’s idea of improving technology education might be a good one, but again the execution of the idea has been poorly handled. Why would any school voluntary give up money from pupils already in their school by sending them to another one unless they cost more to educate than they brought in through funding?

        John Howson

  5. Looks like you might have been read & had some influence at chez Gove. Interesting to see how Kenneth Baker & the Baker-Dearing Trust will respond to Goves article in today’s Times.

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