UTCs excel in providing technical education

It’s difficult to study STEM, like design and engineering, in mainstream schools. UTCs excel in providing technical education.

Last week, whilst teachers across England were busily providing the grades and rankings for all GCSE and A Level students, the exams’ regulator helpfully released a summary of the total number of entries this summer. The conclusions which can be drawn from this summary make very interesting reading, for two main reasons.

Firstly, a clear contrast appears to be emerging between government policy and student choice. It is well-known that government policy has pushed many secondary schools towards delivering subjects which meet the Ebacc accountability measure. The Ebacc includes the requirement for all GCSE students to take either geography or history. As a consequence, over the past four years, exam entries in these subjects have risen by mid-teen percentages; they are now the most popular subjects after maths, English and combined science.

However, at A Level, for which there is no equivalent EBacc requirement and students choose courses for themselves, the opposite is happening. Both history and geography exams have witnessed mid-teen percentage declines over the same period. Is this a clear sign that young people are looking more closely at the jobs market when selecting A Level choices? A recent government study showed that humanities graduates are forecast to experience amongst the lowest employment rates and salaries of any degree subjects over the next ten years.

The second noteworthy observation from this year’s summer exam entries is the continued decline in the number of students studying certain areas of STEM. Whilst computer science has seen a rise in recent years, this has partly resulted from the government discontinuing the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) GCSE in 2018. Indeed, when combined with ICT, computer science has seen a 44% decrease in entries over the past four years, and the total number of GCSE computer science entries in 2020 is less than one-third of those in religious studies. Worse still, the design and technology GCSE (in all its forms) has seen entries halve over the same period. The irony is that these precipitous declines have occurred during a period of rising demand and forecast need in the jobs market; as a consequence, the same government study which placed humanities graduates at one end of the salary league table, put engineers, for example, close to the top at the other end.

Fortunately, University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are free of Ebacc accountability measures. They can choose which courses to run: unsurprisingly, they offer those courses which enhance young people’s employability the most. Three-quarters of UTCs provide at least one qualification in an engineering subject for 14 to 16-year olds (compared with just 15% of mainstream schools), and nearly all deliver GCSE computer sciences. As we begin to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis (in which many STEM practitioners have been the ‘heroes of the hour’), and focus on the skills required in an increasingly digital economy, UTCs have never been more relevant in building the capabilities this country needs.