A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), "UTCs: are they delivering for young people and the economy?" undertakes a detailed analysis of University Technical Colleges (UTCs). 

Introduced in 2010, UTCs offer education to 14-19 year olds, with a strong focus on technical education. They are sponsored by universities and supported by employers. At present, there are 50 of this school type open in England, with 10 having closed, announced closure, or converted into a different institution type.

This new EPI research explores indepth the provision and performance of UTCs, before examining whether UTCs are providing necessary skills for local and national economies.  

Key findings

UTCs: provision and characteristics

  • Despite overall growth in the number of UTCs in England, many are struggling with student numbers.  A third of students are enrolled at one of the 20 UTCs with decreasing student numbers.
  • A huge proportion of UTC students are dropping out after two years. Over half of students enrolled leave between the ages of 16 and 17, failing to progress from Key Stage 4 (14-16) into Key Stage 5 (16-18). Students with lower GCSE results, special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to continue.
  • These significant drop-out rates in UTCs continue after age 16. Those that remain for post-16 study are still far less likely to complete their final studies than students in other types of education:
    - 63% of UTC students studying broader vocational qualifications completed their final assessment, compared to 83% nationally.
    - 69% studying occupation-specific qualifications finished, compared to 81% nationally.
    - For A-levels, 80% of students finished, compared to 94% nationally.
  • A large proportion of UTCs receive poor inspection outcomes from Ofsted:
    - 1 in 5 were rated ‘inadequate’ - twice the national average.
    - 2 in 5 were rated ‘requires improvement’ - four times more than the national average.
    - Just 4% were rated ‘outstanding’ - compared to 22% of secondary schools. 

Progress and outcomes of students in UTCs

  • UTC students make almost a whole grade less progress between leaving primary education and the end of Key Stage 4 than other students in state-funded schools. Significantly, this poor progress is particularly acute for high attainers, who make over a grade’s less progress than high attainers in all state-funded schools.
  • When considering maths alone, UTC students as a whole lag behind by almost half a grade.
  • In all aspects of the government’s ‘Progress 8’ measure, UTC students perform poorly. This includes the ‘open’ element of Progress 8 that can include more technical qualifications. UTC students who enter all three subjects in this ‘open’ element make over three quarters of a grade’s less progress (-0.8), compared with students with similar backgrounds in state-funded schools.  
  • Even when controlling for the fact that students start UTCs in Year 10 (as opposed to Year 7 in most secondary schools), these trends are still evident. Using the best data available, the report finds that during Key Stage 4, UTC students make around three quarters of a grade less progress than similar students.
  • Around half of UTC students achieve at least a pass in GCSE English and maths, compared with two-thirds nationally.
  • UTC students who stay on to study A levels also perform below the state funded average. The average grade obtained at A level in UTCs is a D, compared to the average of a grade C in all state funded institutions.
  • Students taking technical and vocational qualifications at a UTC perform close to the national average - but higher than those in Further Education colleges. On average they achieve a distinction in applied general qualifications (mainly BTECs) and Tech levels.
  • UTC students perform well when retaking their GCSEs – improving their grades in English and maths by around a third of a grade.
  • 20% of Key Stage 5 leavers go on to do an apprenticeship, three times the national average (7%), suggesting that UTCs are delivering good school-work transitions.

Supporting skills needs in the economy

  • UTCs offer more technical pathways than other school types, with students much more likely to choose to study STEM subjects: 10% of UTC Key Stage 4 entries are in computer science (2% are nationally), 8% are in chemistry and/or physics (twice the national average), 16% in science general/combined (12% are nationally). All these calculations exclude English and maths.
  • UTCs are ensuring students are trained for jobs in technical industries where high-skilled employment is expected to grow. Employment growth is projected in sectors that UTCs specialise in such as construction, IT, and health. This could present increased employment opportunities for students in UTCs.

Recommendations

  • The government should consider changing the admissions age for UTCs from 14 to 16. While it is common in other countries for students to make a transition in education before 16, England essentially has a pre- and post-16 system. UTCs have struggled with admissions at age 14. With poor levels of progress and retention, it is not clear that students are benefiting from a 14-19 education.
  • With provision starting at age 16, UTCs should focus on delivering high-quality existing technical qualifications and eventually the new ‘T-levels’ - relevant to local and national skill needs. With UTCs only focusing on ages 16-18, this would give them an opportunity to deliver differentiated, specialised, high-quality technical education. This should allow UTC students to progress to higher levels of technical education in Institutes of Technology, National Colleges, university, or other providers, should they wish to pursue further study.
  • Better measures are needed that account for the technical-oriented provision of UTCs. Improved destination measures are needed that also account for the characteristics of students, so that the particular intakes of UTCs can be taken into account.   

Commenting on the new report, Rt. Hon David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, said:

"Since 2010, the Department for Education has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on University Technical Colleges, to help improve technical education for 14-19 year olds and improve skills provision for key sectors of our economy. These are worthy ambitions but our evaluation of UTC performance shows that this programme is not so far effective in terms of the outcomes being delivered.

“Students generally seem to make less progress in UTCs, even in more technical and scientific subjects, and rates of drop-out and non-completion are very high. This poor performance is not simply about how UTCs are evaluated, it is about the quality of learning and the engagement of students. The government should not fund further UTC expansion until a review is undertaken and steps are put in place to deliver a sustainable and effective programme."

David Robinson, Director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute, said:

“With low take-up, high dropout rates and poor student progress, our research shows that the long-term sustainability of University Technical Colleges is becoming increasingly uncertain.

“Rather than small modifications to the way in which they operate, it is clear that UTCs require fundamental remodelling. In order to remain viable institutions, they should consider admitting students at 16, focus on existing high quality technical qualifications, and become a central component of the delivery of new T-levels”.

 

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