I start with a confession. During my 18 years of headship of secondary schools I spent 16 convinced that my school, as I thought of it, was clearly and beyond challenge the best place for all the children to be educated and I had to keep them at my school at all cost. I held this view of the world in common with the vast majority of head teachers.
I don’t know how or why this changed but the penny dropped that there were some students who we were not serving well. We had neither the equipment nor staff to make a success of the engineering courses we were putting on. So to the bewilderment of my head teacher colleagues I worked with JCB to set up its Engineering UTC knowing that we would “lose” students to it.
Of course none of this will be news to principals of FE Colleges who assure me that unlike schools they are interested in all the young people in their area, not just those in their college. I have visited many FE Colleges in my current role and have been very impressed with those which genuinely hold this belief. It is these Colleges which have embraced the concept of University Technical Colleges and led the development of an application for a UTC, even though it might superficially appear that they are creating competition for themselves.
University Technical Colleges are designed for 14 to 19 year olds and have one or two technical specialisms. The 120 students per year group are drawn from across a sub-region and cover the whole ability range. All UTCs are supported by a university and the curriculum is driven by employers. In many cases the FE College leads this partnership.
The Secretary of State for Education has recently announced the names of the next group of UTCs. There were 37 applications of which 27 involved an FE College.
By being actively involved, the FE College is able to ensure the UTC complements rather than replicates current provision. In some case the college had closed down its engineering department for financial reasons but now appreciates the skills gap faced by engineering and manufacturing companies. Others have a strong engineering department but have run out of space for more students. Others understand the progress students would make if they were able to start a full time course at 14 which integrates the practical with the theoretical, educating hand and mind under one roof. In some cases a need for a new technical specialism has become apparent, which the FE College is unable to provide for. In several cases, the FE College is offering to give the UTC a building.
I am sorry to say that a minority of colleges do not (yet) take this admirable approach. Some either resist the development of a UTC or see it as an opportunity to incorporate the UTC and its finance into the college.
But as we have travelled around the country, employers large and small say that they are unable to recruit technicians of a sufficiently high calibre. There needs to be a radical approach to solving this problem and FE Colleges will be a key part of the solution, sometimes through building on their current provision and at other times by working with partners to create new University Technical Colleges.
Peter Mitchell, chief executive of Baker Dearing Educational Trust