Rt Hon Robert Halfon, MP. Chair, Education Select Committee.

Throughout my political career the need to focus on skills has been a priority. In my current role as Chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, we have agreed two themes linked closely with skills, namely social justice and productivity. How our education system helps to improve young people’s lives and puts them on the ladder of opportunity is front and centre of our programme of work.

We will focus on a range of areas within skills and this includes University Technical Colleges. I am very interested in the role that UTCs can play in helping to offer young people an alternative pathway through their education. It seems essential to me that, as a society, we work to ensure that there is parity between academic and technical pathways. I am keen that apprenticeships are as prestigious an option as attending Oxbridge.

UTCs offer a useful model for this as they combine technical and practical learning with academic study. This is reflected in the recent destination data about students leaving UTCs at 18 years. 46% pursued their education at university, but a quarter (26%) started apprenticeships.

What is interesting is that although the university figure is broadly in line with other schools, the number of UTC students pursuing apprenticeships is three times higher than the national figure which is about 7%. Also, the number of Higher or Degree level apprenticeship starts at UTCs is also higher.

At UTCs it is 37% whilst nationally it is 6%. This is very encouraging and suggests that at UTCs the choice between an academic and technical pathway is not the simple ‘either or decision’ between a university place and an apprenticeship. Instead, UTCs appear to be changing embedded attitudes and giving their students the information and guidance they need to make well-informed choices.

My passion for apprenticeships and skills stems from a simple truth: they represent a huge ladder of opportunity for those seeking work, giving thousands of people the chance to go as far as their talents will take them. I am committed to enabling young people and adults to get the skills they need to succeed in a job, and creating the workforce that businesses need to thrive.

Of course, I will be carrying on the great work that has already been done around apprenticeships. I will be banging the drum and getting the message out there that top apprenticeships are as good as top university degrees – that apprenticeships are more than a credible alternative to “traditional” routes and a real asset to our businesses.

Underpinning much of this is the need for schools and colleges to offer effective careers advice. This needs to ensure that vocational and technical routes are highlighted to every young person. At present, the experience of careers education for young people is partial at best. What can help here is much closer working with the employers who are facing looming skills gaps. In important areas, like engineering, computer science, robotics, and cyber security, STEM is at the frontline of the skills gap. If employers can play a more active role, I am confident that young people will be switched on to jobs and career paths that they might not have known even existed.

In my Harlow constituency I worked closely with employers, the local university and other partners to establish the Sir Charles Kao UTC in 2014. This has allowed me to see first-hand the role employers can play to help build a stronger bridge between education and the workplace.

Employers including GlaxoSmithKline, Raytheon and Pearson are closely involved in the UTC. They offer students the chance to work on real-life projects, get experience of work, and access mentoring. Industry-relevant education linked to these employers provides a real opportunity for young people to grow their careers locally with companies that are leaders in their field.

For UTCs, this close link with employers (who are also represented on the Board of Governors) is quite different to most schools. At Sir Charles Kao UTC this is something that really attracts young people to join the UTC. However, promoting UTCs to parents, carers and young people is challenging and recruitment can be a struggle.

I am confident that the Technical and Further Education Act, which was granted royal assent earlier this year, will make a difference. It includes an important clause which means schools will be required to invite all 14-19 providers into their schools to speak to pupils. This is a positive development for UTCs, and the skills sector as a whole. I hope this will help to address this issue and allow UTCs to flourish.

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