Technical education returns

Posted on 22 Nov 2010 by The Manufacturer

The Baker-Dearing Trust has revealed ambitious targets to open 40 University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in England.

The UTC model is based on the same core principles as the technical schools of the 1950s which turned out some of England’s finest public figures including ex-Speaker Betty Boothroyd and education reformist Sir Mike Tomlinson who now plays an active role with the Baker-Dearing Trust and the progress of the UTC initiative.

UTC education will provide 14-19 year olds with a curriculum biased towards the application and understanding of skills for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects as putting an emphasis on the development of business knowledge. The colleges will develop their curricula in collaboration with local industry so that emerging skills match regional needs as well as contributing to a broader national imperative to bridge strategic skills gaps.

Each college will also be sponsored by a regional university and it is hoped that this association will lend UTCs the prestige which was somewhat lacking in past technical school provision in the UK and which contributed to their eventual downfall. Lord Baker, co-founder of the Baker-Dearing Trust and chair of education reform body, the Edge Foundation, says that the new colleges will help tackle “snobbery” against vocational education.

Lord Baker is hopeful that current progress with the opening of UTCs across England (the JCB Academy is already operational and 5 more colleges will open in September 2011) will be boosted by the current zeitgeist for industrial renaissance in the UK. “This is an idea whose time has come” says Lord Baker
The announcement today that the trust hopes to establish 40 colleges may however seem over-confident to those who know that a mere 12 have been guaranteed government backing over the next four years. In an interview with TM in early November however Peter Mitchell, CEO of the Baker-Dearing Trust did however share that there are already 42 groups across the country who have applied to the Trust for support in better aligning their local education provision with economic and business needs by setting up a UTC. (This interview is covered in more detail in TMs December edition.)
The Baker-Dearing Trust took on the challenge to promote the UTC model across England in response to a perceived need for a high-status education system for a better qualified technical workforce. Lord Baker commented: “We’re desperately short of technicians. If we want to have nuclear power station, fast broadband across the country and high-speed trains, we haven’t got the technicians to do it. We’ve got to train the technicians.”

Each technical college will have an additional level of specialisation above and beyond the STEM focus. There are plans for colleges specialising in medical care and construction as well as different types of engineering like mechanical, electrical, process and chemical engineering. Broader employability prospects for student will also be supported however with the compulsory provision of standard GCSE subjects like English and foreign languages up to the age of 16.

There are widespread concerns among teachers that the UTC schools will put pressure on young people to make career altering decisions at too young an age and that increasing UTC numbers will create a ‘two-tier’ system in education with divides being drawn between so called academic and vocational routes. Peter Mitchell however points to the success of German technical education which, he claims, has made a massive contribution to the resilience of national industry and the prestige which engineers still hold in German society. Lord Baker also refutes the suggestion that aiming for 40 UTCs will have a negative impact on the overall quality of UTC education with sponsorship from industry, teaching specialisation and provision from the Department of Education being unable to maintain the standards of the incredibly advanced facilities displayed at The JCB Academy. “We have to keep up the quality – it can’t be cheap and cheerful… We mustn’t water down the beer.”