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T Levels front and centre at “inspirational” UTC Summer Conference 2023

The rollout and delivery of T Level qualifications were front and centre at the UTC Summer Conference in London last week.

UTC leaders, governors, and stakeholders congregated last Wednesday (12th) for a packed agenda of speeches and panels, with the opportunity to share knowledge and best practice with their peers.

‘Extraordinary’ UTCs commended by skills minister

A highlight of the conference was a speech by the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon MP, who praised those UTCs that have pioneered the delivery of T Levels.

Speaking at the start of the conference, the minister, a “passionate” supporter of UTCs, complimented our co-founder and chairman Lord Baker’s “determination to revive technical education.”

Halfon also mentioned the “extraordinary” BMAT STEM Academy in his Harlow constituency, saying he had:

“Always believed in it because I feel UTCs provide that vital technical education that we need and it’s a ladder of opportunity for local young people.

“BMAT being judged ‘good’ by Ofsted this year, joining the multi-academy trust, and new partnerships with local employers means that it can fulfil its potential.

“Seventy-eight per cent of UTCs are judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and another five have received ‘good’ reports this year – Media City, Heathrow, Plymouth, Leeds, Waterfront – and more to follow, I’m sure.

“I want to thank every single person in this room, all the teachers, and support staff in UTCs up and down the country for the hard work in making this happen and for believing in the opportunities that technical education offers young people.”

The minister also showered praise on several successful UTCs, including UTC Portsmouth:

“UTC Portsmouth is a relatively new institution, having a big impact. Ofsted judged it ‘outstanding,’ which explains why it’s hugely oversubscribed this year. The average points for its Key Stage 5 technical level and applied general qualifications are exceeding national averages, as is the attainment and progress for Key Stage 4.

“People do not understand the role UTCs play and the parents don’t know the variety of specialisms that young people can pursue. When I was at Mulberry UTC in East London last year, they don’t just do hardcore STEM, they do brilliant arts and production programmes as well as health, science, and information technology.

“I also went to Ron Dearing UTC during the pandemic and their enthusiasm for what they’re doing in technical and digital specialisms was palpable. The students were excited to tell me about their career aspirations and how their choice of school facilitated them.”

‘Take the plunge’ on T Levels, Halfon urges

There were also thanks for those UTCs that facilitated the rollout of T Levels, with more set to deliver the government’s flagship qualification going forward. Nine UTCs are currently delivering T Levels with a further 10 starting in September 2023.

However, Halfon also addressed concerns about how T Levels will fit with the UTC style of delivery:

“I know there are concern among the UTC community about how T Levels will fit with your bespoke syllabus and pupil cohort.

“I would urge you to discuss your UTC’s considerations with those that have taken the plunge. I know they’re keen to share their expertise as The Leigh UTC did at an event hosted in March.

Addressing The Leigh UTC directly, the minister said:

“Thank you for what you’re doing on T Levels, you have been a trailblazer in early T Level adoption.

“More of you, such as JCB, have picked up the baton on offering these valuable courses to your students.”

Robert Halfon also highlighted how UTC Warrington will be offering purely T Levels at post-16 from September, the first school in the country to do so, which the minister called “really encouraging”.

Attendees pushed the minister to ensure the government does more to inform employers about T Levels, to which he replied there was a “massive communication programme” going on with T Levels. However, he said he would take the concern back to Whitehall, to “see what more we can do.”

Employers building long-term relationships with UTCs to deliver T Level courses

Attendees at the conference also had the opportunity to learn about successful UTC-employer collaborations. For instance, Chris Hatherall, Principal of UTC Warrington, and Sellafield’s Head of Engineering Design Resources and Development John Patterson, who is also Vice Chair of the UTC’s trustees, discussed the partnership between the two organisations.

“We are talking about T Levels and the industry placements a lot and that is a challenge for John and Sellafield’s supply chain,” said Hatherall. “But it’s one everyone is sensitive to and wants to make sure the experience is right.”

John Patterson and Chris Hatherall address the audience

UTC Warrington, in consultation with its employer partners, has also developed a Skills Builder programme to develop students’ employability skills, including listening and problem solving, with ranks and different levels to achieve.

Speaking about a partnership with Mulberry UTC, Abbie McFarlane, from the Barts Health NHS Trust Education Academy, told the attendees that the trust’s mission was to build a long-term relationship with the UTC to develop and extend a T Level health programme.

This was achieved by increasing the number of placements to improve access to health careers, McFarlane said, speaking alongside Suhela Bari, Mulberry’s Deputy Director of Learning for Health.

Abbie McFarlane and Suhela Bari address the conference

During their placement, T Level students were supported to achieve their Care Certificate, which is now mandatory across most NHS trusts and social care settings.

McFarlane said the T Level helped the trust “identify future talent” and create an “attractive pipeline into our workforce,” adding:

“These T Level students do really support us when they come to placement and our staff are so thankful for their support, so they do help us as well.”

Sharon Cross, UTC@MediaCityUK’s Vice Principal, stated that their “moral duty” was to provide a level playing field for their community and to secure a wealth of industry experiences for their students, to allow them to take steps into the creative sector.

All the UTC’s students, from the moment they step through the door, Cross said, will encounter a real-life brief with industry partners, which is complemented by entrepreneurial founder talks, extra-curricular industry experiences, as well as workshops and talks.

Sharon Cross

The UTC’s progress against its missions was reflected in a response to the student survey which Cross shared, stating:

“I feel like my future is in good hands.”

Plethora of projects for UTCs to get stuck into

Baker Dearing’s Director of Education and Innovation Kate Ambrosi also talked attendees through the line-up of exciting multi-UTC projects that are planned for the coming year.

This included the next stage in the development of the UTC Young Women in STEM network, which will be widening to encompass all UTCs and will be celebrating landmark calendar dates such as International Women in Engineering Day in June and Ada Lovelace Day in October.

There is also a concept car design competition, being run with several automotive industry partners, and an expansion to the project with special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, which has been running with London Design and Engineering UTC but will now be extended to five more UTCs.

UTC veterans share their experiences

Towards the end of the day, and to celebrate several UTCs that have been open for ten or more years, Baker Dearing’s Senior Adviser Steven Leahey convened a panel of long-serving UTC leaders and governors to offer their lessons from over the years.

These lessons ranged from making use of alumni to sell a powerful story about the UTC, to ensuring employer engagement ran through the entire UTC, rather than being centred on one lead person.

Left to right: Clive Barker, Chris Mitchell (speaking), Jill Davies, Alex Hayes, Nick Crew

The panel members – including The Leigh UTC’s chair Clive Barker, Elstree Screen Arts Academy principal Chris Mitchell, Liverpool Life Sciences UTC and The Studio School principal Jill Davies, UTC Norfolk regional director Alex Hayes, and Sheffield UTC Academy Trust executive principal Nick Crew – also discussed the challenges they had faced. This included changing leadership structures, Ofsted inspections, and employers’ changing attitudes towards UTCs.

Overall, the conference was greatly appreciated by the attendees and a brilliant send-off for the summer holidays, with one attendee stating there had been “lots of good practice shared and ideas to take away,” and another calling it “informative and inspirational.”