As we emerge from the pandemic and look to the need for economic regeneration the importance of careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects has never been more apparent, whether in engineering, digital or health for example. Shortages of well qualified, work ready young people in these subjects are being talked about frequently, as is the urgent need for high quality technical education pathways for students from 14 onwards, while not forgetting the continuing training needs of the existing workers in these subject areas. The Government’s White Paper on skills seeks to address this challenge, one which has been with us now for decades.
How can the education and training sectors meet this need? Well, while not a new idea it will at the heart have to have a very close relationship between education and employers, working together to deliver high quality technical education underpinned with an academic study of English, mathematics and the sciences, and with the development of the skills and personal attributes needed in employment. Can this be achieved given the pressures on both education and employers at this time? Well for the last ten years University Technical Colleges (UTCs) have been established with just this agenda, with 48 now in operation. Some 400-500 companies and 48 universities and FE colleges have been involved in the establishment of these institutions for students aged 14 – 18. The destination data for the UTCs is outstanding with the most recent data (2020) show that 55% (50%) proceeded to university (national figures in brackets), 13% (7%) went on to an apprenticeship, 12% (22%) to employment, 14% (10%) other and 3% (8%) were NEET (not in education, employment or training).
It is not the purpose of this piece to go into significant details of the UTC curriculum, which offers students at its core GCSEs, BTECs and A levels underpinned with projects set by employers, student time in employers` premises and the planned development of the skills and attributes needed for employment. The question now is how can the UTCs further develop their offer to provide education and training beyond the age of 18, still in close partnership with employers and FE and HE? It is my view that such developments are necessary if UTCs are to contribute further to meeting the future needs of students and employers and be innovative in their contribution to meeting the ever increasing shortage of skilled people needed by employers beyond those supporting the UTCs.
The first change to present course provision is the introduction of T-Level courses covering many of the STEM subjects and the phasing out of the BTEC courses. While the UTCs support the introduction of T-Levels, there is real concern about the phasing out of BTEC courses. Detailed analysis by all UTCs of likely student uptake of the new courses indicates clearly that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds will not meet the required grades needed to start the new courses. This situation is of concern and argues against withdrawing the BTEC route at all, or at least phasing the courses out over a longer period, say five years at least.
Turning to the further development of the UTC curriculum to meet the needs of students aged 18 and over, two factors drive the argument. The first is that many UTC students and their parents would welcome the idea that their children can have continuity of education and training and clear progression routes in an institution they are familiar with. The second is that the developments would further enhance the close work between UTCs, employers and FE and HE who would continue to have a central role in developing the curriculum and supporting the students. One or two UTCs have already started on this path by joining with the employers jointly to deliver apprenticeship training. While this development is to be welcomed, more is possible. In particular, once students have achieved level 3 qualifications (equivalent to A-levels) at the UTC, they could then be offered level 4 and 5 routes, jointly developed and delivered with the UTC . These could be HNC, HND and foundation courses as well as apprenticeships. The courses could be full-time or part-time, according to the needs of employers, who would continue to have a significant role in shaping the curriculum and in its delivery. The associated universities likewise would be involved, particularly in offering foundation courses and assuring students places at the university if they meet the qualification requirements.
Such provision could also be made available to existing employees of companies as there is growing evidence that at least in STEM careers level 4 is increasingly needed as a minimum if we are to meet the needs of employers as they innovate and improve productivity.
Clearly, such an agenda as set out briefly above will require a great deal of careful and joint planning and a willingness of the DfE and others to allow such developments. There are clearly risks involved but if we do not take risks (well managed of course) then we are going to be stuck with the present one size fits all structures and attitudes which have prevented for decades this country having high quality academic technical routes with clear progression from level 2 (GCSE) to levels 3, 4 and 5. Such a development would also not be age related but available when young people are ready. Never has such provision been more important and needed as the country looks to the future and employers’ needs.
Sir Mike Tomlinson