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Comment: UTCs a welcome change

A skilled workforce will help pull the UK economy out of recession, but the new University Technical Colleges need to attract the brightest and the best, says E&T.

It would seem Lord Baker, the UK's former education secretary and a long-standing advocate of technical skills, is taking vocational education by the scruff of the neck. Having for years criticised the last Labour government for diminishing the value of vocational education, his recent announcement to open between 40 and 70 new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) attempts to breathe renewed life into the image of skills-based education.

Original plans outlined by the previous administration called for the creation of 12 UTCs. However, in citing engineering and manufacturing as the future bastions of the economy – and a way of kick-starting growth in UK exports – the Coalition Government has suggested that a many more are now required.

Opponents of UTCs are concerned that they signal a return to a two-tiered education system, with 'bright' children being retained within an academic setting, while those deemed less able are siphoned-off to technical colleges.

I sincerely hope this would never be the case. After all, UTCs are focused on teaching the higher-level skills that will prepare students for careers in engineering and manufacturing, enabling them to help drive these crucial industries forward. Bright children have much to gain from attending a UTC and it should be a serious consideration.

As far as engineering is concerned, the traditional vocational route often goes hand-in-hand with university education, as a number go on to complete degrees once they've finished their apprenticeship. So I fail to see how UTCs would prohibit students from continuing their academic studies; an often quoted 'anti' UTC argument. Each UTC will also be sponsored by a university or further-education college, maintaining a clear path to higher education.

If the government is making a genuine attempt to ensure the country has access to a highly skilled workforce, and is doing so by making a commitment to teach the necessary skills that industry is calling out for, then the introduction of UTCs is a move which I warmly welcome. However, UTCs will need to work very closely with schools, parents and students alike to ensure that young people know about UTCs and what they can offer, and that advice is clear and unbiased.

The last 13 years has been marked by an over emphasis on university as the default educational route post-18. This has ultimately contributed to the growing inequality and uncertainty that many young people now face. While competition for university places is likely to increase in the coming years, creating credible opportunities for young people should be greeted with open arms.

We need to ensure greater parity between both academic and skilled vocational education, and stop characterising as gold and silver standard. I imagine that for many students at the moment, a route which has a clear progression to employment is a no-brainer. I would add that students must choose the UTC route for the right reasons – dedication, interest and passion.

I will continue to watch the progress of UTCs with real interest. By partnering with universities and FE colleges, UTCs will carve out a clear path to higher education for an increasing number of students; a key measure that will determine the overall success of UTCs.

In addition, UTCs will need to attract bright students who can fulfil the demands of skilled professionals in industries such as engineering and manufacturing. To have a meaningful impact, UTCs need to create long-term opportunities for students long after they have left the classroom.

With government rhetoric supporting skills and craft-based careers, UTCs really could be a prime example of putting their money where their mouth is and is a credible answer to the UK's skills question. We really need greater respect and merit given to the vocational sector.

Ann Watson is managing director of EAL (EMTA Awards), a leading UK awarding organisation for vocational qualifications. www.eal.org.uk

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