No room for rivalry

Students shouldn't suffer in the crossfire as traditional schools and vocational colleges figure out how to peacefully coexist

Vocational education

An article published this week on the Guardian website delved into the potentially uneasy relationship between traditional schools and the new breed of vocationally-focused University Technical Colleges (UTCs). The politics and logistics of establishing these new kids on the educational block may seem somewhat removed from day-to-day experiences of students, but in reality, we’ve seen that stereotypes, strained relationships and pressure to maintain pupil numbers can filter down and have an impact on the students themselves.

CERP researchers carried out some of the very first work looking into student experiences of UTCs, and while students in this small study were generally very positive, many reported having to battle disapproval and negativity about their decision to move from ‘traditional’ schools. Sadly, this often came from figures of authority and trust – their teachers.

While some teachers, particularly those in more ‘hands on’ subjects like DT, supported their students’ decisions to move to a more vocational education and saw it as a valuable opportunity, others were less encouraging. Some dismissed the UTCs, saying the teaching would be poor and that students would scurry back to their old schools within weeks. One student was even told that moving to a UTC would be ‘the biggest mistake of her life,’ another was wrongly told that his grades weren’t high enough to get into a UTC (UTCs do not select students according to ability).

Subtler tactics included not allowing students time off to attend residential introductory sessions at their chosen UTC, or even bumping pupils to higher ability sets to encourage them to stay at school.

CERP researchers visited UTCs specialising in Engineering – a field suffering from its own negative stereotypes – which students also had to deal with, girls in particular. Some students protected themselves by simply not telling their teachers or friends of their decision to move until the last day of term, anticipating the negative comments that would come their way.

The government is committed to opening more UTCs in the coming years – increasing the 17 currently operating to 50 by 2015/16. With each UTC catering to 500-800 students, many thousands of young people are destined to make the transition. As a new initiative there are bound to be unknowns and concerns about the success of a new educational pathway – but students deserve a realistic picture of the choices before them, and it’s important that those they approach for advice are able to provide well-informed, unbiased guidance on the options available.

Anna Nagle

Research on this topic was carried out by CERP researchers Debra Malpass and Hayley Limmer

Things you might be interested in:
Blog post: What do students think of UTCs?
Blog post: ‘Girls can’t be engineers’
Research paper: University technical college students’ perceptions and experiences of studying engineering

Debra and Hayley presented their research on students’ experience of UTC education at the Journal of Vocational Education and Training 10th International Conference in 2013. Their presentations can be downloaded here.

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