Article - Issue 48, September 2011

University Technical Colleges

Anna Paczuska

Download the article (320 KB)

The JCB Academy is located within the adapted and renovated Tutbury Mill, which was built by the industrial entrepreneur and engineer, Richard Arkwright, in the late 18th Century © JCB Academy

The JCB Academy is located within the adapted and renovated Tutbury Mill, which was built by the industrial entrepreneur and engineer, Richard Arkwright, in the late 18th Century © JCB Academy

Described by David Cameron as “the next great poverty-busting structural change we need”, University Technical Colleges nationwide are poised to offer first-class engineering skills to those who want technical, rather than purely academic, training. Anna Paczuska, an education researcher, looks at a new concept in education that could provide highly-skilled educated technicians for the UK.

In 1944, Conservative politician Rab Butler, introduced an education act that was to change the face of UK education and make secondary school free for all pupils. His so-called Tripartite System of secondary education comprised three types of secondary school: the grammar, the secondary technical and the secondary modern school.

Decades later, grammar schools and the secondary modern remain indelibly etched in the memories of many but what about the secondary technical school? In truth, it never got off the ground because the limited funds available at the time were funnelled into the alternatives.

Today we are seeing something of a revival. Kenneth, now Lord, Baker, the former Conservative Education Secretary, is spearheading a modern version of the secondary technical school, the new University Technical College.

The colleges, for 14-19 year olds, will teach engineering, product design, health science, construction, land and environmental services and IT alongside general and academic subjects. For students under 16, this will include GCSEs in English, Mathematics, Science, the Humanities and Languages. For older students, there will be A Levels in Mathematics, Physics and other qualifications. The emphasis is on practical learning, alongside academic study, with local and national employers providing support and work experience. The aim is to produce cadres of engineering apprentices and engineering undergraduates. This is a laudable aim but not without controversy. There are many who think that specialisation to this degree at the age of 14 is a mistake. Others point to the mix of general and vocational qualifications being taken as providing a good grounding for students, including those who decide later that engineering is not, in fact, for them.

Staffordshire is home to the first school and government funds are in place to establish another 23 by 2014. Moreover, recent media reports highlight Baker’s hopes to have up to 300 colleges established in the coming decade.

Pointing to the first UTC, Lord Baker says: “Two things are outstanding. Truancy and bloody-mindedness have disappeared, and there has been dramatic improvement in the quality of English and Maths, because students are studying those subjects alongside engineering. The whole idea of bringing under one roof the training of the hand and the education of the mind is already proving to be very successful.”

The JCB Academy opened its doors in September 2010, to be followed by the Black Country UTC in Walsall a year later. Aston college is scheduled to open in 2012, Greenwich in 2013, and a Hackney UTC has just been announced. Many more are underway. Each specialises in engineering and forms part of a government-funded plan to develop a network of institutions providing high quality, high status technical education at school level.

In the beginning

The JCB Academy was the brainchild of Sir Anthony Bamford, the Chairman of JCB. He developed the idea some seven years ago, at a time when his company’s long-standing engineering activities with local schools appeared to be declining in effectiveness. Fewer young people were progressing to careers in engineering, and, while his company was offering 15 Modern Apprenticeships, only eight candidates had been recruited.

In order to stimulate and regain the interest of local young people in design and manufacture, Bamford proposed a new kind of engineering-focused institution to provide practice-based education for school pupils in Staffordshire. Following a visit from Lord Baker and the late Lord Dearing, however, all parties decided the JCB Academy would make a great pilot for the recently conceived UTC.

As a UTC, the academy could pioneer Baker and Dearing’s new education concept, now being taken forward by the Baker Dearing Education Trust. Importantly, it would still be promoting technically-oriented study for young people, as initially planned by Bamford. And so the first UTC was born.

The academy was set up at JCB’s Tutbury Mill, originally designed by the famous industrial entrepreneur and engineer, Richard Arkwright, in the late 18th Century. The mill was being used as a storage facility when JCB joined forces with English Heritage and local planners to create a state-of-the-art educational building for engineering and business studies while keeping many historical features intact.

The Department for Education currently funds the UTC, with JCB contributing 10% of the capital. Business partners include Bentley, Bombardier, Bosch, Rexroth, National Grid, JCB, Rolls-Royce, Toyota, Parker Vansco, Zytek Automotive and National Rail. At the same time, education partners include the universities of Cambridge, Derby, Loughborough, and Staffordshire as well as Harper Adams University College and Thomas Alleyne’s High School.

Business and education partnerships provide pupils with access to a range of engineering facilities in both industry and education. Meanwhile, close university links help to ensure students are well informed and well prepared to progress to study at higher levels if they choose.

Engineering currently makes up about 40% of the curriculum, with local companies providing pupils access to their facilities. As the JCB Academy’s chair of governors, Paul Pritchard, highlights, this means students can experience real projects that engineers are working on in industry. Fault diagnosis and maintenance of JCB engines is just one example of a current student project, with other projects including the development of an off-road vehicle with Harper Adams and the design and manufacture of a simple pump for a jet engine with Rolls Royce.

The Academy’s curriculum for 14-16 year olds also has a strong business ethos. For example, teams of students tackle engineering and business problems in work modules that last eight weeks. During this time, they cover aspects of the Higher 14-19 Diploma in Engineering as well as build up qualities and skills crucial to the world of work.

Academic study leads to formal qualifications with 14-16 year old students taking GCSEs in Mathematics, English, Science, German and ICT alongside their engineering studies. Classes in physical education, religious education, citizenship and more are provided with extra curricular activities in music, sport and art also being mandatory.

Meanwhile, 16-19 year olds focus on the Advanced 14-19 Diploma in Engineering, which is equivalent to three and a half A levels. These students can also choose additional study from a wide range of A levels. A business qualification was also introduced in September 2011.

The first year

So was the JCB Academy’s first year a success? In short, yes. According to Pritchard, the Academy hit admissions targets, recruiting 120 14-year olds and 50sixth formers. Only four year 10 students have dropped out and the authorised absence rate is 95%.

But already two key issues are emerging. First, as more and more UTCs open, where will the qualified, committed technical teachers come from? And second, what about women in engineering? Female students make up only 10% of the academy’s total student population. On the lack of teachers, Pritchard believes assignments from business and industry and in-company training could help to solve this issue.

Issues aside, the JCB Academy’s head teacher and former head of Devon Technology College, Jim Wade, is adamant his pupils have made exceptional progress, beyond that which they might have made in other settings. This, he says, is because subjects such as Mathematics are given practical context, which makes for good practice in teaching and learning.

But what of the coming year? Wade says the biggest challenge for the JCB Academy will be to maintain the level of excitement generated during the first year. And, like Pritchard, he believes that publicity and information are crucial. But as more young people, parents and educators learn about UTCs, the benefits of learning in a practical and technical environment will become clearer. And, for many young people, the JCB Academy could well be the ideal environment in which they can develop, thrive and achieve.

The Black Country UTC

The Black Country University Technical College, Walsall, opened in September this year, is sponsored by Walsall College, The University of Wolverhampton and Siemens. Specialising in new generation, high technology engineering and sustainability, the UTC has around 40 additional industry sponsors including Finning, Caterpillar, Chamberlin plc, ZF Lemforder, Haughton Design, Sandvik, Stratasys and South Staffordshire Water.

Principal Chris Hilton sees industry partnerships as central to the UTC’s curriculum. The curriculum is organised around eight projects or units per key stage with students having the opportunity to work with partner companies on real world engineering tasks. For example, pupils in one of their projects will be making parts for prestigious automotive manufacturers.

Students will also join the ‘Learning Companies’ scheme in which they will take part in employer-led activities to promote such skills as communication, time management, planning and self management, teamwork and enterprise. Key activities include a week-long engineering project as part of the students’ induction programme and a Young Enterprise Day which focuses on the London 2012 Olympic Games.

UTC’s first intake includes a substantial number of girls: 40% of year 10 (14 yearolds) are female. Hilton hopes that these figures will follow through to the sixth form and believes that effective marketing materials are key to attracting a diversity of students. For example, would-be students discover that smartphones and other high tech appliances are modern examples of engineering while learning that industries such as fashion and furniture design heavily rely on engineering.

Looking to the future, Hilton emphasises the need to keep learning relevant and contemporary and to maintain good working relations with local companies. He strongly believes the UTC curriculum will influence national thinking on vocational education and invoke significant change to examination syllabuses.

[Top of the page]