From education to employment

How UTC education provides a doorway to social mobility

Joanne Harper, Executive Principal, UTC Reading and UTC Swindon

With so many options available to young people, such as grammar schools, free schools, sixth form, apprenticeships, further education colleges, UTC’s and university, it must be a challenging task to decipher which path will be the right one for a young person’s career choices. It is difficult for students to try and foresee how their educational choices will affect their future career – especially when this won’t come to fruition until three, four or even five year’s time – and all too often there is little experience of work life offered to them during secondary school level education.

Some of these choices can be daunting, particularly when we consider the financial repercussions of most university pathways. Or, if we look at grammar schools or independent schools, many of which are not only selective but also more academic and less vocational which in itself can close off certain avenues for students. UTC’s on the other hand try to strike a balance in offering experience of the outside world, hands on real-life projects, in conjunction with academia.

The skills learned at UTC’s help to inspire students by providing the opportunity to solve real-life industrial and community problems. As a result, students rapidly gain the confidence and both the technical and personal skills to become the creative contributors that both business and public services need to shape and drive the future of our society.

University Technical Colleges can be seen as a doorway to social mobility providing students with the same career prospects as university students through access to apprenticeships and industry ready experience – but without the steep costs. In our current economy it is vital that we draw on the expertise and resources of our industry and academic partners and apply what we learn to the real world. But a step beyond that is the need to establish an inclusive, enabling and non-hierarchal environment in which our students can learn.

This is where university culture can be rather exclusive – as it only really caters for people who are able to pay for the services provided to better them. As for grammar schools, there is the stigma that these institutions are reserved for the children of the wealthy and middle class, with statistics that reflect that children from working class backgrounds are far less likely to obtain a place. In fact, a study by academics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of Cambridge and York University found that more than four times as many of the 22,000 Year Seven entrants into grammar schools each year were likely to come from private schools, compared with those on free school meals.

UTC’s on the other hand champion progressing anyone with the passion for the specialist subjects, without the financial pressures and laborious selective entry tests. Plus, with industry needs rapidly changing, it is uncertain whether grammar schools and universities will be able to provide the curriculum to deliver the necessary skills for our future economy.

The UTC foresees our future economic challenges and the direction in which the economy is heading, plus we work with leading industry partners who offer consultancy and advice on curriculum content, as well as work experience opportunities and partner led projects.

International and global businesses are scoping out the value of partnerships with UTCs to shape the entrepreneurs of the future, with organisations such as Microsoft, Cisco, Johnson Matthey, BMW, Network Rail and Fujitsu already involved. These companies fully engage students with real life projects, gradually submerging them into the expectations of working life. For example, Fujitsu worked with students at UTC Reading to design a virtual reality solution for companies such as Thames Water; Cisco worked with teams to design solutions using Internet of Things to improve the cinema experience or improving the drive through experience. These projects make a difference to local communities and industry, and are beneficial to both the company and students alike.

At UTC Reading and UTC Swindon, more than 50 percent of our students go on to apprenticeships, many with our industry partners.  One of the consequences of Brexit and the Apprenticeship Levy is that 52 percent of companies said they would consider taking on one or more apprentices to help fill any skills gaps due to our departure from the EU. YouGov findings show that post-Brexit Britain is a worrying time for British businesses, with a significant percentage believing changes to our position within the EU will have a detrimental impact on staff and training. Yet, this could be an opportunity for our young apprentices.

It’s crucial that businesses meet this challenge head-on and invest in the UK workforce by recruiting motivated apprentices to make up the skills shortfall that is widely expected to arise after Britain leaves the European Union. This is where the links between UTCs and businesses are creating a positive outcome in a time of uncertainty.

Also, with the government’s intention to develop Britain as a digital nation, the UTC can certainly be seen as a way to bridge the skills gap. There has been concern over recent years that STEM roles are being left unfilled due to a lack of suitable candidates. Yet, by raising awareness of what is on offer at UTCs and the excellent business partnerships we have, this should entice more students.

That said, UTCs do lack transport funding (given they are sub-regional provisions and take students from at least a 15 mile radius, often further), which could be a barrier for students from lower income families. Since our aim is to create a doorway to social mobility we certainly do not want to turn away any students or create any barriers so I do believe this needs to be addressed.   Furthermore, The NUS student’s Union has raised fears that apprentices from the most deprived backgrounds are being denied thousands of pounds of financial support. As UTCs are a practical way of contributing to our economy, I believe that our students should have the same access to funding and going forward I will be championing the need to make all types of education accessible to all, in particular how UTCs are an opportunity to level the playing field.  

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