University Technical Colleges and Selection: A response

2nd August 2017

In a recent LKMco blog, ‘UTCs: Who’s Going and Why Should We Care?’, Kate Bowen-Viner reported on new research by the NfER, and argued we should pay closer attention to who is attending University Technical Colleges.

In this blog, Neil Patterson, (Principal of Silverstone  UTC) responds from a UTC perspective.

Why we need to get better at supporting students to self-select their education choices. 

Selection isn’t a word that sits well in the English state-funded education system and the concept of ‘organic selection’, as discussed by Kate Bowen-Viner recently, is also uncomfortable.

Organic selection suggests that a school attracts a particular type of student.  As principal of a University Technical College, which specialises in high performance engineering and business and technical events management, I have to accept that not every young person will find our curriculum appealing. However, I don’t mind if the students that join me are the highest of fliers or struggling to get on, as long as they have a real interest in what we do here, and work towards a clear career goal.

This form of student self-selection relies on young people receiving the information and guidance they (and their parents/carers) need to make informed choices about their education. It’s a big decision to change school at 14, and not something that should be done on a whim, without the facts.  What I want is not for schools to choose our students, but for the student to choose us.

Our students come from about 80 to 90 different schools. We work hard to ensure school leaders know what we do. They are best placed to advise their students on whether UTC Silverstone offers the right education setting. Sadly this approach doesn’t always work. All too often parents of students looking to join us describe the pressure their children are put under to stay at their current school, without consideration for their child’s abilities, interests or career ambitions.

On the other side of the coin, parents of disruptive students often tell us that their child’s previous school advised them to apply to the UTC. These children faced permanent exclusion at their previous school. Those schools tell parents that we are better suited to their children because we are “hands on”. This concerns me a great deal because the reality is that most of their KS4 study is still the same, and while engineering might be an applied subject, there is not the level of “hands on” activity that most students are led to believe by school leaders who haven’t taken the time to find out about the UTC.

As a head of a UTC, I want students to choose subjects that they enjoy and reflect their abilities and talents. I’m sure this is the same for any head teacher. I don’t want students to be encouraged to stay at their current schools by fear, or encouraged to leave because of protectionist motives or ignorance of what we really do. However, until we can be confident that we are being represented fairly in the many schools that surround us, we remain vulnerable to schools selecting our students for us.

It is important that all young people (and their parents/carers) have the information they need to make an informed choice about each point in their education. Earlier this year, the government made it a legal requirement that all local authorities should write to the parents of Year 9 children to tell them about their local UTC.  Letters went out for the first time in Spring 2017 and UTC Silverstone has seen an increase in applications from 98 to 197 from just March to May this year.

In addition, the government has legislated to entitle UTCs to go into local schools from September 2017 to explain to the students the type of education that UTCs offer.  I believe that this will lead to a further significant increase in the rate of applications at KS4.

Factors such as gender and a preference for the sciences over the arts will still impact certain statistics but these steps should make it easier to ensure young people understand what a UTC education can offer so they are better prepared to make decisions around their education for themselves.

Neil Patterson is an engineer by profession. Prior to taking up the role of Principal at Silverstone UTC, he was Chief Engineer at McLaren Automotive.  His portfolio of projects includes the Mercedes SLR McLaren, the McLaren 12C and 650S coupe and spider, and also the recently launched 570S.  He was enticed into the role from a passion for inspiring younger people to enjoy engineering as he does, and from a frustration with the skills gap which is leading to business being turned away from the UK.

We are very grateful to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust for organising this response.