It seems nowadays that hardly a week goes by without the announcement of the closure of another University Technical College (UTC) or their lower status sibling, a Studio School. They are struggling to recruit, achieving poor grades from Ofsted and failing to establish financial viability. Institutions, that were so admired in the abstract, that both Labour and Conservative politicians proposed to open one in every town, have proved to be seriously flawed in practice.
It is not surprising that this catalogue of failures has been greeted with barely disguised glee by some parts of the battered FE sector. Having initially been patronised and excluded by Lord Baker, the architect of this new approach, colleges have increasingly been called in to bail them out. Yet schadenfreude, however understandable, is the wrong reaction. Whatever else this is, it is a serious failure of a well-intentioned initiative to boost vocational education and give it status. It is imperative to understand what went wrong.
One cause of failure has been a very deliberate attempt to bypass the experts in vocational education – FE Colleges. It was partly snobbery – at a UTC it was hinted, your child could study engineering without having to associate with hairdressers or bricklayers – but it was also rooted in a longstanding tradition of promoting alternatives to colleges rather than building on them. The creation of National Colleges and proposals for new Institutes of Technology follow that tradition; and unless they are properly integrated with the college system risk ending up as another short-term experiment that distracts rather than develops.
Sponsors of UTCs and Studio Schools explain some of their failure on the difficulty of recruiting at the age of 14. Schools, they argue, are reluctant to see pupils transfer since it affects their funding; parents are reluctant for their children to step outside the mainstream having just got established at secondary school. This is almost certainly true; but what it points to is the difficulty of establishing a 14-19 institution in a system that explicitly rejects a 14-19 phase.
There are arguments for and against the creation of different tracks for pupils from the age of 14. There are advantages in terms of motivation and specialisation. There are downsides in terms of limiting future options and potential damage to social mobility. What is indisputable however is that if there is to be a vocational track it needs to be carefully planned and integrated across the 14-19 phase, avoiding the risk of dead-ends and closing down options too early. In the absence of coherent thinking about a 14-19 phase it was simply irresponsible to allow an influential individual and an eclectic band of enthusiasts to follow a vision that was not aligned with national policy.
Supporters of UTCs and Studio Schools now seem to be accepting that setting them up as isolated institutions was wrong and they should now be seen as embedded in Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) They are right to see isolation as part of the problem; but it is not clear that MATs can answer the issue of institutional incoherence that matches the intellectual incoherence of current post-14 policy. Nor can MATs answer the problems caused by institutional competition which provides strong financial incentives for schools and colleges to limit information about alternative options for pupils.
The messages from this failed experiment are particularly resonant as the sector looks forward to the implementation of the Sainsbury reforms and T levels. Ideally colleges should be working collaboratively with local schools so that those aged 14-16 see the choice of T levels as relevant and aspirational; not a fall back for those who can’t do A levels. Ideally all pupils should have some exposure to technical and vocational learning from the age of 14 – not just those in an idiosyncratic and increasingly discredited set of institutions. This means however that DfE needs to wrest back control of the UTC/Studio School initiative from the mavericks and embed the best of its thinking in a clear national policy.