Hardly a day goes by without the mention of labour supply problems and skills shortages affecting all areas of the UK economy. Our country is witnessing a ‘perfect storm’ of immediate workforce disruptions caused by the pandemic and Brexit, overlaid with the structural challenges of retraining employees for the digital age. There is no quick fix to this problem, as it takes time to develop skilled staff.
This will certainly be on the minds of all politicians including the new appointments at the Department for Education, which describes itself as the ‘department for realising potential’ that ‘powers our economy’.
Unfortunately, these new appointees inherit an education system which is a long way short of fulfilling the Department’s ambitions: it is a system which fails one third of students, who leave without a ‘pass’ in English and Maths GCSEs; it is a system which places inappropriate pressure on young people’s mental health through ‘all or nothing’ terminal assessments; it is a system which is squeezing out technical and creative subjects for students before the age of 16, and seeks only to offer a binary choice of ‘A-’ or ‘T-’ Levels thereafter; it is a system which signposts too many young people towards university courses with little prospect of careers at the end, but saddles them with high levels of debt; and it is a system which is not preparing our future workforce for the digital revolution we are all embracing. In short, it is a system greatly in need of change.
Many of these systemic flaws have been evident for some time, which is why we established University Technical Colleges (“UTCs”) in 2010. In doing so, we have already helped over 40,000 students realise their potential by providing a highly relevant employer-led blend of academic and technical education. The proof is in the output, as UTCs now show an enviable five-year track record in their student leaver destinations: few join the ranks of the unemployed; a high percentage start apprenticeships especially at higher and degree levels; and those progressing to university typically take science, technology, and engineering courses. In response, student recruitment to UTCs is now accelerating. This year saw enrolment rise 10% across the 48 UTCs in England to 17,500.
So, as the new ministerial team considers the enormity of the task ahead, we encourage them to look closely at the experience of UTCs and the clear benefits they offer to young people. UTCs offer a school-age technical education that is of vital importance but is of increasing scarcity elsewhere. Over the past decade, various government policies have resulted in a substantial decrease in technical and creative GCSE subjects. For example, the six Design and Technology subjects (-65%), as well as Music (-24%), have seen material declines in exam entries, which are now falling year-on-year. This is bad for student choice, and limited exposure to technical subjects before the age of 16 does not allow students to ‘try before they buy’ at post-16.
Most students at UTCs combine applied general courses for post-16 study with an A-Level. This combination is highly valued by employers and is a key ingredient in successful UTC leaver destinations. Applied general qualifications, such as BTECs, etc., lead to jobs for which there is currently a national skills shortage; thus, the continuation of funding for these courses is imperative. Plans to scrap many of them from 2022 and to abolish most of them by 2023 in favour of T-Levels will leave students aged 16 with few alternatives to A-Levels.
By starting at 14 years of age, UTCs provide a ‘fresh start’ for many of our students, including those previously disengaged with education. They thrive at UTCs through a connection with learning which comes from being in a smaller school environment, from being around older student cohorts, and from working on employer-led challenges, etc. which make a clear linkage between academic study and its relevance to the world of work.
If incoming ministers really wish to realise the potential of each and every student, UTCs provide some very valuable lessons.
Simon Connell, CEO Baker Dearing