Thursday 29 October 2020


Prime Minister Boris Johnson has put the government’s skills policy agenda in the spotlight. 

In a recent speech denouncing skills shortages in several technical occupations, the Prime Minister vowed to ‘end the pointless, nonsensical gulf … between the so-called academic and the so-called practical varieties of education’.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are new state-funded 14-19 schools established by the government in the past ten years with a very similar intent. In our new research article we seek to understand whether UTCs were successful at bridging the gap between academic and technical education in England.

UTCs were conceived as a response to a growing technical skills gap and to the perception that young people lacked an adequate and engaging technical skills provision at school. The cornerstone of UTCs is a teaching curriculum that blends core academic subjects with technical subjects that meet regional skill shortages (such as engineering, manufacturing or digital technology). UTCs also benefit from the direct engagement of local universities and employers: industry experts help design and deliver project-based learning seeking to develop the skills and attributes valued in the workplace. (More information here)

There are currently 48 UTCs open in England, according to Department for Education figures for September 2020. The first UTC opened in 2010, since then 58 more opened across England. Despite this expansion, over the years the UTC model has been dogged with controversy. As new schools with no established record and a lack of publicity, UTCs struggled to recruit enough students: recruitment at age 14 proved particularly challenging as typically English students would not change school at that age. Low operating capacity has dented the financial viability of a number of UTCs resulting in 11 closing or changing status. UTCs have also been criticized for their poor performance in national examinations (see e.g. Dominguez-Reig and Robinson, 2018 and Thorley, 2017). Part of this poor performance, however, might be due to the fact that UTC students look very different from typical students. In our study of the effectiveness of UTCs we device an empirical strategy to take this into account, and are able to evaluate the causal effect of enrolling in a UTC on student outcomes.

Our research focuses on 30 UTCs that opened between 2010 and 2014. Having access to education registry data linked to tax records (LEO data), we were able to follow cohorts of students who enrolled in a UTCs either in Year 10 (age 14) or Year 12 (age 16). For Year 10 entrants, we measure academic performance two years later in the high-stakes end-of-secondary school exams (GCSEs). For Year 12 entrants, we investigate post-16 course choices, achievement at Level 3 (e.g. A-Levels or BTECs) and at whether students start an apprenticeship. We are also able to look at students’ post-18 transition into Higher Education or into the labour market. Our research strategy leverages UTCs’ geographical availability across students’ cohorts allowing us to compare UTC students with arguably very similar non-UTC students.

Our findings reveal a stark contrast between pre- and post-16 UTC provision. First consider Year 10 enrolment, we find that enrolling in a UTC has a detrimental effect on GCSE achievement: students who attend UTCs are 26 percentage points less likely to get 5 or more GCSEs with good grades than similar non-UTC students, a large negative effect equivalent to twice the achievement gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. UTCs also significantly reduce students’ chances of achieving grade C (now grade 4) in English and maths. These results are concerning: research at CVER warns about the negative consequences of students missing out on grade C in English, limiting student progression over the longer term (Machin et al. 2020).

We find no such detrimental effect on education outcomes for Year 12 entrants: UTC enrolment does not affect students’ probability of achieving at least one A-Level and makes them much more likely to enter and achieve a technical qualification at Level 3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find a strong effect on the probability of entering STEM qualifications (higher by 25 percentage points). Impressively, UTCs increase students’ probability of starting an apprenticeship by 14 percentage points. This is a potentially very positive outcome: evidence from CVER points to substantial apprenticeships payoffs for young people (Cavaglia et al. 2020). Finally, we document positive effects of UTC enrolment up to one year after leaving school. While UTCs do not appear to be better (or worse) at sending students to university, they are very good at propelling students into STEM degrees. Also, they enable transition to the labour market: as a result of UTC enrolment in Year 12, students are 3 percentage points less likely to be NEETs one year after leaving school.

What can explain these dramatically different results? One concern is that combining the academically-demanding GCSEs curriculum with additional technical subjects at a time where students are also adapting to a new school may prove too challenging, especially in view of the fact that students moving school in Year 10 are doing so at a non-standard transition time. Furthermore, Year 10 recruits are less academically able than Year 12 recruits (in terms of maths and English test scores), and we find that UTCs are better at teaching more academically-able students.  As more UTCs move to recruit students at a natural transition point (i.e. at age 11 as well as age 16), this might improve their performance to the extent that they become better able to attract a higher attaining group of applicants and have a longer time to teach the broader curriculum before exams at age 16. More generally, we need to bear in mind that UTCs are brand new schools and shouldn’t be judged too hastily. We find some evidence that UTCs improve with time. While the jury is still out on the longer term effect of this policy, our study gives grounds for hope.

This article was originally published on the TES website on 14 October 2020:

Guglielmo Ventura is at research assistant at the Centre for  Vocational Education Research at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Related TES coverage from Kate Parker:

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