University Technology Colleges failing younger students

Young people who join a University Technical College (UTC) at the age of 14 do far worse on average in their GCSEs than similar teenagers at other schools, according to a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The research carried out by LSE’s Centre for Vocational Education Research shows students who enrol in UTCs at age 14 (Year 10) are 26 percentage points less likely to get at least five good GCSE grades than similar students who are not in UTCs.

For those joining at 16 (Year 12), UTCs boost vocational achievement, without harming academic achievement.By age 19, UTC students who joined at 16 are less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training) and more likely to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at university than their peers. 

Overall, the findings suggest that enrolment at the non-standard transition age of 14 should be reconsidered. A policy some UTCs have already adopted as they have begun taking pupils from age 11. 

“University Technical Colleges have been put forward as one solution to the UK’s long-standing challenge of weak vocational education,” report co-author Professor Stephen Machin, director of the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), said. “Our results show that for students who enter UTCs at 16, they do boost vocational achievement – without harming academic achievement – and improve achievement in STEM qualifications, and enrolment in apprenticeships. 

“But, our results also show that for younger pupils who started at 14, these schools dramatically reduced their academic achievement in GCSEs.”

The study also finds that UTCs have different effects on high and low achieving students, with schools being more effective with high-achieving students.

The authors estimate how the effect of the UTC would change if those joining a UTC in Year 10 had a similar ability to those joining in Year 12. They find the probability of obtaining maths and English GCSEs would then be the same as for peers in other schools and UTC students would have a better chance of gaining science GCSE. But the overall chance of achieving five or more good GCSES would still remain lower than for similar young people in other schools.

One explanation for why lower-achieving students struggle in a UTC, is that combining the standard academic curriculum (GCSEs) with additional vocational subjects may be too ambitious.

UTCs were introduced in England in 2010. In September 2020, there were 48 UTCs offering technical subjects taught to a high level, alongside an academic curriculum. They work closely with local employers and universities, with the aim of meeting skill shortages in their region.

Dr Camille Terrier, CEP research associate, added: “Switching school between Year 9 and Year 10 may disrupt students’ preparation for GCSEs, given a growing number of schools are starting GCSE preparations in Year 9. Newly opened institutions might also not be the best place to help struggling students when staff have little knowledge of the pupils’ background.”

Professor Sandra McNally, director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research, said: “Amid fervent discussions of the under-performance of these schools, we provide the first causal evidence on UTC effectiveness. Consistent with the negative selection of students into UTCs, and while there are concerns, we show an overall picture that is somewhat less negative than what has been depicted so far.”

Guglielmo Ventura, CVER research associate, said: “It is still early days in the lifetime of University Technical Colleges, but the model has already evolved in directions that are supported by our results. More UTCs are moving to recruitment at a natural transition point (at age 11 as well as age 16), which might improve their performance to the extent that they become better able to attract a higher attaining group of applicants. Our results also indicate that UTCs improve with time, which suggests caution in forming quick judgements about the long-term efficacy of the policy.”