It’s all a bit technical…

Posted on 8 Dec 2010 by The Manufacturer

Jane Gray finds out how the revival of mainstream technical education is shaping up and talks to key players about the potential they see in it for the rehabilitation of UK industry

Over the last year apprenticeships have been at the centre of British education reformation discussions aimed at ensuring the connections between the real labour market and the qualification routes of young people marry with greater coherency. This has particularly been the case in manufacturing where apprenticeships, inherent in the history of the sector in any case, have been boosted by government recognition of the need for high-level technical skills if British manufacturing is to compete globally in the future.

Apprenticeships are, however, only part of the story. There is a wider initiative afoot to restore respect in vocational disciplines, including engineering, to raise the quality of their delivery and give those that emerge from these qualification routes the respect that they deserve. A significant part in this initiative will be played by the establishment of a wave of new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) – specialist schools dedicated to supporting talent in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM) based subjects and driven in their curriculum delivery by close engagement with local enterprise and industry.

Government will fund the establishment of 12 UTCs across the UK over the next four years.

The history
Peter Mitchell, CEO of the Baker-Dearing Trust, the charitable body which has taken responsibility for supporting and coordinating Britain’s UTC system, explains the concept background and what it strives to achieve: “In 1941 there was a review of what post war education ought to look like and the initial proposal suggested a system of grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns which children would transfer into at the age of 13. As it turned out this age was changed to 11.

“The reason this model failed is twofold. Firstly the youngsters were too young to make the specialist choice that a technical education requires. Secondly, everyone wanted to attend the grammar schools and the reality became that those individuals who attended technical schools were those who hadn’t made the grade for a grammar education. This weakened the status of technical education and when comprehensive schools were introduced in the early 1970s the idea was simply swept away.

“Interestingly, Germany more or less adopted the English post-war education system and stuck to it. I believe this is a large reason for their better-balanced economy and healthier manufacturing base today.” With the need to rebalance the British economy now pressing hard on Government the importance of providing high quality, applied skills in areas relevant to manufacturing and engineering makes Germany’s retention of respect for technical schools extremely enviable. Mitchell clarifies: “Talking to manufacturers you always hear that the group of people they are lacking for growth are high quality technicians. An awareness of this prompted Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing to pull together the concept for the new University Technical Colleges. This does not replicate the technical schools of the 50s but takes the best from them and adds college status and the involvement of universities in order to enhance prestige.” In simple terms, UTCs are non-selective institutions offering 14-19 year olds an education which focuses on STEM subjects and their application to real industry scenarios. The formulation of UTC curricula will be undertaken as a collaborative enterprise between academia and regional industry. While core subjects such as English and foreign languages will be taught up to GCSE level the bias will be towards subjects with potential for furthering and applying engineering knowledge – such as the sciences, design technology and IT. Furthermore, each institution will specialise in certain forms of application ranging across mechanical, electrical, process engineering and more. The focus will depend on the requirements of the region.

Present and future
The precedent for this new type of education has already been set and is proving extremely successful in the shape of the JCB Academy in Staffordshire.

Originally inspired by the desire of Sir Anthony Bamford to foster the next generation of engineering and business leaders, the JCB Academy started out independent of the Baker-Dearing vision but is now a formal part of the UTC programme and playing an active advisory role in the establishment of the national network.

Following a series of informative roadshows to educate and engage students and parents in the local area, the JCB Academy found itself heavily oversubscribed when it opened its doors this September. There was, however, some heavy excavation of the industry-education landscape that had to be done before this triumph came about. The Principal of the Academy, Jim Wade, hopes this pioneering work will make progress smoother for the next wave of UTCs. “We were the first specialist 14-19 engineering academy and therefore every decision we took in terms of how we operated and interacted with industry partners had to be passed through the Department of Education. Things should be easier from here on in and part of our incentive in joining the UTC programme is that we share in the overall aims and there will be strength in being part of a group of schools that can have meaningful discussions about how policy should develop to enable our growth and success.” Next steps for the UTC programme are well under way. Peter Mitchell told TM that the Baker-Dearing Trust is currently looking at proposals from 43 groups interested in initiating a regional UTC and that there are definite plans for another five colleges to open in September 2011. One will be the Black Country UTC in Walsall. Amarjit Basi, Principal and CEO of Walsall College, a Further Education institution with a track record of excellence in delivering engineering and construction skills, gave TM some insight into the progress being made and the partnerships supporting the launch of the UTC. “It is so important that the Black Country UTC be established in this region which was once so strong in manufacturing but which has become disheartened by decline. Talking to employers there is a strong sense that the time is ripe for the refreshing of local industry and for exciting young people about the opportunities that a modern manufacturing sector has to offer.

“Walsall has had a strong engineering offering for many years but the nature of demand from employers, particularly the small and medium sized enterprises in the local area, has changed in recent times; for example, around the developing need for CAD CAM skills and knowledge of polymers. This resulted in an influx of students on Walsall’s product development courses but we saw the opportunity to do more and engaged with regional employers and with Sector Skills Councils like Cogent and Semta.

Together we have developed an exciting curriculum offer around clean engineering, rapid prototyping and materials development.” Engagement with employers and professional bodies is essential to the credibility of the UTC concept. If the objectives of UTCs are to have integrity there must be clear links with a real labour market and real professional development for young people. Basi is confident the Walsall UTC will be able to deliver on this as the college plans to support the delivery of both young and advanced apprenticeships by providing a tailor made facility for the college-based part of those qualifications.

Furthermore the Black Country UTC has partnered with the Royal Institute of Mechanical Engineers in order to provide professional accreditation to students. Basi states: “All the students enrolling with our UTC will be registered as Young Engineers, a programme which maps to the IMechE professional accreditation system. As a consequence our students will graduate at the age of 18 or 19 with letters after their name. This is a really exciting step toward finally achieving parity between vocational disciplines and academic education.”

Input, output
As far as employers are concerned Basi is grateful to the pro-active core of companies, from SMEs through to large enterprises, that have participated in the progress of the Black Country UTC.

Involvement has ranged from preliminary input into curriculum development through to more in-depth collaboration over curriculum delivery including the dedication of either financial, material or professional resources.

While there is no obligation for this level of commitment an increasing number of UTC industrial partners are seeing that the expense of time and money in these projects should not be viewed as sponsorship so much as investment, both in the future resilience of their own companies and of their industry as a whole. Companies involved in driving the curriculum and delivery methods of the Black Country UTC include: Finnings (Caterpillar); Siemens; and Stratasys. Paul Gately, channel manager at the latter, a manufacturer of fused deposition modelling systems, explains how and why the company chose to get involved: “We became aware of the UTC after being contacted by Walsall College. The potential development of the UTCs throughout the UK was explained to us and we leaped on the chance to get involved in the local community and assist young people in becoming proficient at using key industry skills on equipment like the additive manufacturing machines we use in our business.” Walsall’s enthusiastic sponsorship of the Black Country UTC, together with Wolverhampton University, will hopefully act as an exemplar to other FE colleges around the UK, some of which have expressed concern that the UTCs will be in competition with FE institutions and detract from their funding potential. Basi says this does not need to be the case: “Walsall College will retain its engineering and construction provision of courses for mechanical and electrical engineering and other classical engineering crafts. The UTC will provide a far more holistic education to youngsters (starting at 14, rather than 16, which is the case for FE) and will be specifically focussed on the new types of engineering mentioned earlier. It is important to see that what we are doing is not duplicative. The aims and offerings are distinctly different.” The critical step now, if UTCs are to become embedded into the fabric of UK education and increase the number of young people pursuing engineering carers, is for UTC partnerships to communicate effectively. Parents and young people must be convinced of the UTC potential for providing British industrial stability, by streamlining appropriately skilled technicians into UK factories, and career security for individuals.

For more information about UTC projects in your region visit and find out how you can benefit and assist.