From education to employment

Edge Q&A: Activate Learning

Over the past decade Edge has championed the importance and benefits of high quality technical, practical and vocational education and training, seeking a closer alignment between education and the skill needs of the UK economy.

Edge encourages innovation in education by supporting the creation of new institutions that promote profound employer engagement and address areas of skills shortages for the UK economy. In addition Edge champions projects that will support the effective dissemination of best practice in vocational education and training and have the ability to support further development or replication. All the projects in the series have the potential to become beacons of excellence and exemplars of what can be achieved.

Name of FE College:

Activate Learning


UTC Reading – Reading, Berkshire

UTC Oxfordshire – Didcot, Oxfordshire

Technical specialisms:

UTC Reading – computer science and engineering

UTC Oxfordshire – science and engineering

Why did you get involved in the UTC programme?

We recognised the need to diversify; motivated in part by expected reductions in funding for further education. But more than that, the move has given us a broader understanding and appreciation of local educational needs. It has enabled us to develop a wider framework of educational choice, develop more pathways for local young people and extend our vision to transform lives through learning.

What is your role in the UTCs?

As lead sponsor we lead on developing the local model, engaging industry partners, public consultation, school design and planning, curriculum design and planning, recruitment of staff and students. We also provide central services including marketing, HR, IT, estates management and finance.

How do the UTCs differ to FE Colleges?

Employer partnerships and project based learning are central features of the UTC model. Although these are in evidence in further education, they are more successfully embedded in the best UTCs.

The UTC offer is more specialist than our offer in colleges and, because of the small boutique size, UTCs seems better able to attract a more active form of deeper employer engagement. We are now trying to maximise this form of engagement more sustainably in our colleges too.

What are the qualifications and skills learners acquire?

A mixture of vocational BTECs and core GCSEs and A-levels, students also get the opportunity to complete industry and employer-specific qualifications. At UTC Reading this has included Microsoft Technology Associate status and Autodesk Certified Users in AutoCAD.

Who are your main employer supporters and how does this link to the skills needs of the local area?

• UTC Reading – Cisco, Microsoft, Network Rail, Peter Brett Associates

• UTC Oxfordshire – UK Atomic Energy Authority, MINI Plant Oxford and RM Education.

Engineering is a major growth area in the region, as identified by the Local Enterprise Partnerships. Both schools seek to develop the engineering skills required to deliver the region’s STEM growth agenda.

UTC Reading is located within the M4 corridor which is often described as England’s ‘Silicon Valley’. The computer science specialism has been chosen to meet the skills and employment needs of major employers such as Microsoft which has its UK base close by.

Similarly, the science specialism at UTC Oxfordshire is designed to reflect and support Science Vale UK – an area of economic growth in South Oxfordshire which is on the way to becoming a global hotspot for enterprise and innovation.

What are your ambitions for the UTCs?

This summer UTC Reading became the first UTC in the country to be awarded an outstanding rating by Ofsted. Our ambitions are to maintain the quality of teaching and learning at UTC Reading and to achieve the same high standards at UTC Oxfordshire, which opened this September.

Both schools met their recruitment targets to open. UTC Reading is growing year on year and UTC Oxfordshire is already attracting strong interest for applications in Year 2. Our ambition is that the schools continue to grow to meet their 600-strong capacity thanks to reputations for academic and technical excellence and high levels of student satisfaction.

The schools are strengthening existing employer partnerships and growing new partnerships. At UTC Reading we have launched a bespoke apprenticeship programme with industry partner Peter Brett Associates, while at UTC Oxfordshire an agreement with the team behind world land speed record Bloodhound SSC is leading to exciting joint projects.

Would you consider opening further UTCs?

We would consider opening more UTCs if their offer complemented that made by the wider educational ecosystem of the local area. A UTC might not work everywhere and where they are placed needs careful thought and analysis.

What have been the greatest challenges in establishing the UTCs?

In the first year you are recruiting to a concept, and asking parents and their young people to take something of a leap of faith. For us the involvement and support of our industry partners was fundamental. Hosting taster events at the offices of big name partners not only gives confidence but it showcases future careers.

What do you see as the biggest achievements so far for the UTCs and for your own college?

The biggest achievement has been seeing students completing their full two-year programmes and going on to secure successful employment or university places. This has included students progressing directly into apprenticeships with our industry partners, and taking up degrees sponsored by employers. Our industry partners have told us that they value the relationship which helps to remove some of the risk associated with recruitment.

Achieving the outstanding rating from Ofsted was a particular highlight. This wasn’t so much about the rating itself, but the comments made by inspectors which included:

• The business-like ethos of the college permeates all aspects of learning. Students are prepared exceptionally well for their future lives in modern Britain.

• Teachers’ high expectations of all students are matched by students’ keenness to learn and succeed.

• The inspiring leadership of the principal, supported and challenged by knowledgeable, highly effective governors and business partners, has resulted in outstanding achievement for students.

What advice would you offer to colleagues in FE considering setting up a UTC?

Build relationships – In business as in life, relationships are central to success. At UTC Reading we needed to forge productive relationships with the local authority and with existing schools to help them understand our offer. Of course being clear about your offer helps considerably.

Spend time crafting your ethos and mission. It’s not a paper exercise; done properly it drives everything else. A crisply distilled and compelling proposition creates your point of difference and drives how you design your building, how you want students to dress and behave, how you market to parents and learners. Once you have it, stick to it and keep reinforcing it.

In dealing with employers (especially the big ones), be confident and commercial. We developed a memorandum of understanding to engage each partner, clarifying what they were going to provide and what they expected back from the project.

Plan the project – Invest in good project management to navigate the process. At UTC Oxfordshire we started the marketing and promotion very early (giving us an 18-month run). It can feel too early and slightly presumptuous when you are still in the consultation phase, but you need your branding, website and collateral ready to go.
I would also advise building the governing body early – headhunting and recruiting governors as you go to get a strong and active board.

Related Articles