Academies, free schools, the English school system is increasingly diverse and today I was at an event at the House of Lords to celebrate the latest addition; University Technical Colleges.
These new state schools for 14-19 year olds are being set up in partnership with Universities and supported by local industry to give young people an alternative pathway for learning. Each college will have a strong specialism in technical subjects, with specialist staff and facilities to provide young people with an authentic project based curriculum developed with University partners and in response to local industry needs for particular skills. The aim is that these young people will then have clear pathways into apprenticeships, skilled employment locally, or further study at University level.
Secretary of state for education Michael Gove spoke this afternoon, expressing that vocational education in England has in the past not been valued as highly as academic pathways. He explained the Government’s commitment to ‘make good the mistakes of the past’, and create a system in which technical and vocational pathways had the same value as the traditional academic University route. UTCs aim to achieve this by extending the school day to allow young people the time to complete the requirements in subjects such as Maths and English, whilst still leaving time for projects in specialist areas such as engineering.
Professor Alison Halstead, Pro Vice Chancellor of Aston University echoed this by stating the importance of core subject GCSEs delivered in a rigorous way to support such projects. David Way of the National Apprenticeship Service described the enthusiasm of young people engaged in this kind of learning, and the aim of keeping the engagement of talented young people who may be turned off by traditional academic pathways seemed key to the UTC movement.
However, it seems there is much more to it than simply engaging those at risk of disengaging with the education system. Derek Parkin of energy firm E.ON reminded us of the key role engineers and technically skilled people play in solving the challenges that our society faces. It was engineers who implemented the public health revolution of the nineteenth century, and he predicted it will be engineers who will be central to addressing the problems we currently face around sustainability. The problem is that employers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit young people with the necessary skills, hence the involvement of industry partners local to each UTC who are helping to create a vision of schools aimed to provide highly skilled recruits that the local economy needs.
There was much talk of the pathways out of UTCs to employment and further study and training, but what of the routes in? I spoke to Lee Kilgour, principle designate of Aston University Engineering Academy and asked him about how this would work. Young people would join his school after year 9 of their schooling, but he explained that he saw their role extending into the primary phase. He sees his organisation getting involved in initiatives like the ‘Primary Engineer‘ challenge, and working with primary schools to support developing aspirations in STEM subjects.
I asked Lord Baker the same question, and he said he saw the UTC movement as a potential shift in the system for both primary and secondary education. He expressed that the transition of pupils at age 11 was in many ways not appropriate, and that in his view something more akin to the middle school system would serve young people better, giving them an option at 14 to make a real choice about taking a specialist type of education in either a technical or academic route. Whether this will spell the start of a system wide change remains to be seen, but he asserted that he wanted to see a hundred UTCs before the next election, confident that they would prove their success quickly enough to justify the additional investment needed from government to make this happen.
Vocational education has been gaining traction for some time, but there was a strong feeling from speakers today that University Technical Colleges marked a significant shift. UTCs are not aimed to be the ‘soft option’ that some qualifications are often depicted as; with 8.30 – 5.00 days and University backing there has been significant emphasis on making them a rigorous alternative. Several speakers sited the UTC movement a broad historical context, with Gove stating they had the potential to be ‘one of the great successes of the 21st century’.
Full working days, project based learning and clear pathways to industry in areas in need of skilled, talented people. The key themes here were authenticity of learning and giving young people the responsibility of choice.
Live blogs from the event: