Q&A: University technical colleges

Bricklaying University technical colleges focus on specialist vocational education

What are university technical colleges?

They are specialised colleges offering 14- to 19-year-olds the opportunity to take full-time, technically-oriented courses. They are equipped to high standards with the latest modern technology for the field in question and are sponsored by a university.

They are set up so that students can benefit from the expertise of local business, further education colleges, vocational education experts and universities. They always have a specialism such as engineering, science technologies and health care. And they are supposed to offer clear routes into higher education or further learning in work.

How many are there?

There are currently two up and running in England. The first to be set up was the JCB academy in Staffordshire which opened in 2010. This September saw the opening of the Black Country UTC in Walsall, in the West Midlands. There are three more already in the pipeline and the government has just approved plans for 13 more.

What's the idea behind them?

To engage students, particularly those who prefer hands-on practical learning, and to turn out highly skilled job-ready young people needed by local employers. The university technical colleges (UTC) method allows a student to study a subject they are really interested in. It is taught in industry standard facilities by teachers with real life practical experience.

UTC supporters say that by 16 their technical skills are far in advance of those students in standard comprehensive schools and that they are in turn more enthusiastically engaged with their academic studies.

How are they different from regular colleges?

The main difference is the age of the students, with youngsters joining from the age of 14. Like academies and free schools, UTCs have more freedom over things like the curriculum, the length of the school day and teachers' pay and conditions. Typically, a UTC day will start at 08:30 and at 17:30 - more in line with the working day.

The other main difference is that there is a guaranteed involvement with local businesses and a university - although many FE colleges have similar links. The university helps develop the curriculum, staff development and allows its specialist facilities to be used to inform and inspire the students.

Some say 14 is too young to specialise?

Most GCSE students will be making their choices at age 13 or even at the end of the second year of secondary school. So if they are to begin in a UTC at age 14 students are being asked to make decisions about specialising at quite an early age.

The NASUWT teaching union has argued that technical colleges will increase the segregation between academic and vocational paths, because pupils will physically be in different schools. But UTC supporters argue that their students also receive a broad education including English, maths and science combined with practical and technical qualifications which are recognised by employers and universities.

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