From education to employment

Project-based learning and employer involvement creates well-rounded, work-ready students with better technical skills

Cherry Tingle, Principal, Energy Coast UTC

Response to the NFER evaluation of university technical colleges – Year 1

The first evaluation of University Technical College (UTC)’s approaches to curriculum design and employer engagement has found that project-based learning and employer involvement has helped to create more well-rounded, work-ready students with better technical skills. The interim report found that students at UTCs develop more work-ready skills such as project management and good communication skills alongside their technical skills. Employers involved in their education described them as “young professionals ready for work”.

Does this matter?

As a UTC Principal I believe it does – but you would expect me to say that. The CBI agrees – their report “The right combination” (July 2016) said 77% of businesses expect to have more jobs requiring high level skills in the next three years and 69% of businesses are not confident there are enough people with those skills. They go on to add that “by far the most important factor employers weigh up when recruiting school and college leavers is their attitude to work (89%) and aptitude for work (66%)”. Formal qualifications come much lower in their priorities (23%).

The report also identified that funding was also a major challenge. UTCs are funded at the same rate as other schools, but their curriculum involves more teaching hours and specialist equipment. The funding of high quality technical education needs to be addressed to ensure long-term financial security of UTCs.

UTCs have had some bad press but recent UTC destination data shows they are doing a fantastic job preparing young people for the world of work or HE – equipping them with the skills they really need for life – the skills and qualifications business are looking for.

We place a very high emphasis on academic success – in common with other schools. But we also place a very high emphasis on other skills – important skills that will support and help our young people access the world of work and higher education. Skills that this report and the CBI know are critical.

So, if you came in to a UTC what would you see?

You would see excellent learning and teaching delivered in a practical context; that high emphasis on academic success that you might see in any school –  but you would also see some other things.

You would see things which are different – things which might explain why 25% of all UTC leavers go straight in to apprenticeships – as compared to 5% nationally (DfE destination data 2016). Why 78% of those going to HE go into STEM related courses – against a national figure of 22% and why 92% of UTC apprenticeship destinations are STEM related. 

This against a background where the CBI report states: “..action is needed to improve the supply of STEM skilled people”. In UTCs only 1% of leavers are NEET (8% national).

In a UTC students work with state of the art technical equipment and facilities usually only available to students at HE level or to skilled employees in large companies. Our students gain experience of a long working day – as they are with us from 8.30am to 5.15pm. Local and national employers adapt the curriculum and work with our students on real life projects. Employers deliver courses at the UTC and students also study on site in employment settings. Our students understand what work means.

You would also see other things though. Things which may appear more subtle, but which are very carefully planned. Students chat to employees of local companies and eat lunch with CEOs of national companies. They go out and work with employers on site – on a regular basis. They explicitly learn about, develop and improve their employability skills; focussing on how to develop resilience, leadership, independence etc.

The CBI state “For the 14-19 age group employers believe a top priority for schools and colleges should be developing awareness of working life with support from businesses”.

That is what UTCs do. That is what this report has shown we are very good at.

The report mentions that UTCs do not have quite as high an A8 or P8 score as other schools nationally. This is true, but, ridiculously, UTCs – with a completely different curriculum – are subject to the same accountability measures as other schools.

Why is this ridiculous?

  • Firstly, the accountability measure, P8, measures progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school –we are only responsible for 2/5 of that time – yet the measure applies to us.
  • Secondly, many regular schools have changed their curriculum to fit the measure – what gets measured is what gets done. UTCs don’t do this – they deliver all the high quality academic courses in English, maths, sciences, etc but then work with employers to develop the rest of their curriculum to meet employment needs.

P8 and A8 are not appropriate measures.

The report identified challenges and leading a UTC has challenges as does leading any institution. In common with other educational institutions we struggle with recruiting high quality staff, we struggle with finance, (we need to pay staff to teach 35 hours a week not 25 like most schools)  – we simply do not receive enough funding, but these are challenges the government needs to address for all schools, including UTCs.

The bottom line, the acid test, is would I send my own child to a UTC? In a rapidly changing world where we need skilled young people with great transferable employment skills the resounding answer is yes.

Cherry Tingle, Principal, Energy Coast UTC

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