University Technical Colleges are set up as a fascinating collaboration between businesses, universities and school education. The idea is brilliant and echoes the success of the technical education system in Germany and Austria. However, it isn’t a very comfortable place to sit; we are state funded – which brings huge pressures in itself – and need to comply with all of the school standards while the demands of employers are high and we have recently arrived in communities and the local education system who don’t immediately understand what we are here for. So it’s important that we make sure we have a clear and distinct focus so that we can fit comfortably in the local and regional landscape.
From my perspective, UTCs are here to do two things: Firstly, to provide work-ready young employees for the region’s businesses. Secondly, to help young people find meaningful careers directly into companies or through university.
Meeting the needs of employers
Before we opened UTC South Durham in 2016, I gathered together a group of enthusiastic employers to help design how we operated. They defined the skills our students needed to be highly employable and specified all of our specialist equipment. The group is still going strong and they have created and led our industry projects, and been instrumental in curriculum and strategic decisions. Our recent Business Dinner, where students gave awards to companies and companies to students, was a great demonstration of their importance to us.
Our work with businesses has taken us in some interesting directions and it’s important that we remain flexible to their needs. Last summer we created a new Mechatronics Lab, which was opened by the Duke of Kent. This was a direct response to two things; regional businesses talking about a lack of skills in robotics and control systems and students coming through the UTC with huge interest in these areas. Our post-16 Tech Level Mechatronics course is one of our most popular this year and the students are flying.
Similarly, we’ve had a lot of interest from local fabrication companies, with several looking for apprentices and being very generous with their time, advice and materials. That has led to the launch of our new Level 2 Engineering course in Fabrication and Welding, in conjunction with Hydram Engineering, and the installation of new specialist kit. Again this is proving to be very popular with students and employers are looking to snap them up.
Helping young people find meaningful careers
If our primary focus is on careers then we need to look beyond the passing of exams as the defining measure of success for individual students and a school. Being well set up for, and then finding, a meaningful career route are what really matters from education (I include in this that young people are well prepared to make a wider contribution to society as good citizens).
A UTC education does three things; it delivers a core academic curriculum for knowledge understanding and preparation for further study, leading potentially to university as a route to careers. It teaches technical skills and knowledge so that future employees can contribute to industry quickly and progress technical advances. It provides a workplace education so that students are building the skills needed so that they are both highly employable and making proactive choices about their career direction.
And it’s working. Destinations from UTCs at age 16 and 18 are well ahead of other types of schools. At UTC South Durham we had nobody classified as NEET after they left us last year, everyone who wanted to go to university did so and we had seven times the national average of apprenticeship successes. This year we had 100% pass rate at A-level, 89% of our Engineering Tech Level grades were Distinction or better and the apprenticeship success rate is looking even higher.
We have had students going on to superb destinations, including Russell Group University and apprenticeships with household name companies but there are two examples I’d like to mention here which sum up the point of UTCs.
A small, local fabrication company, Aycliffe Fabrications, came to visit us over a year ago – they were looking for an apprentice and some advice about how to find one. They chose to invest time working with all of our students (a huge dedication for a small company) and narrowed their search down to two students. After several visits and interviews and a couple of weeks of work experience, they chose Matthew as their new apprentice. They were most concerned that they might invest time and money in a new apprentice who wouldn’t last or would move on to another firm. In Matthew they found someone who understood what he was letting himself in for and is a very good fit for them. He’s been there for a year now and is thriving; his confidence has increased hugely and he is loving the work. It’s wonderful to see.
Noussayba arrived in the UK as a Syrian refugee, having had a year in a camp in The Lebanon. She and her family were relocated to Newton Aycliffe after going through a challenging United Nations programme to be granted asylum to the UK. She had been rejected by other 6th Forms because her English was weak but we could see that she had a passion for learning, particularly Chemistry and Maths. She recently achieved superb grades in her A-levels and is heading off to university to study Pharmacy, which she has chosen because of the shortage of medicines she saw in the war zone and refugee camp. She recently achieved the Principal’s Prize at our Business Dinner because of her superb tenacity and diligence in the face of adversity.
Surely these case studies, and thousands more like them across the country, demonstrate the point of education.