The first evaluation of University Technical College (UTC) approaches to curriculum design and employer engagement has found that project-based learning and employer involvement has helped to create more well-rounded, work-ready students. The report was undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Edge Foundation to evaluate the UTC model in order to inform sector-wide practice.
The interim report found that students at UTCs develop more work-ready skills such as project management and good communication skills alongside their technical skills. Employers involved in their education described them as “young professionals ready for work”. The report also found that students felt more confident about their next steps after UTC education.
The study team visited 10 UTCs, three in the north of England, three in the midlands and four in the south of England, interviewing leaders, staff, pupils, employers and sponsoring universities. There was evidence of considerable employer awareness and presence at all the UTCs visited. This included informing the curriculum with current industry skills needs; observation and experience of everyday industry activity; genuine, authentic challenges or problems for young people to solve; ongoing, regular input into projects; provision of visits to employers’ workplaces; employer talks; resources and facilities; and specialist sector expertise.
However, the UTCs studied acknowledged that they face challenges in recruiting suitable employers and sufficient numbers of students, as well as in recruiting and retaining high-calibre staff. Despite this, they reported that many students make significant progress – often performing better than expected on arrival. Interviewees attributed this to a range of factors including: smaller learning environments; higher teacher-to-student ratios; high-quality teaching (particularly in technical subjects); input from industry experts; longer school days that allow for increased teaching time; effective pastoral support; and the opportunity to follow unique curriculum pathways that are better suited to students’ needs and interests.
The study reveals that UTCs’ recruitment of students can be a challenge. Senior leaders and governors observed that UTCs may be seen as competitors by local schools, who may view UTCs as posing a financial threat to them by taking away students. While acknowledging the financial issue, UTC interviewees suggested that dialogue with local schools could enable them to see the benefit of the UTC curriculum for some students.
Building and nurturing working relationships with employers was identified as key to achieving effective employer engagement. In some cases this meant working with employers to ensure that projects were pitched at the right level for students and in others encouraging employers to be more proactive about what they had to offer.
The next stage of the evaluation, to be published next year, will focus on UTCs with high levels of employer and university engagement and will include a best practice guide for UTCs on working with education and industry stakeholders.
Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering and Education, Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Every effort should be made to address the engineering skills gap in this country and UTCs are an important avenue into technical careers. There are clear benefits of employer involvement in UTCs for both industry and students alike. All UTCs in this report had an employer presence, but the varying approaches to employer involvement and the challenges of finding the right employers to involve need to be addressed as this type of technical education evolves and matures.”
Alice Barnard, The Edge Foundation CEO, said: “This independent report shows that there is much to learn from the UTC model for all schools. Students clearly benefit from the employer engagement opportunities available and this is reflected in the outcomes whether that’s an apprenticeship, education or employment. The implementation of the ‘Baker clause’ in January may help to address some of the recruitment challenges many UTCs face and make the local UTC a positive choice for young people who are focused on a technical education.”