What do students think of UTCs?

Vocational educationUniversity Technical Colleges (UTCs) are a relatively new phenomenon in England, with the first UTC opening in September 2010, but the government has committed to funding 34 of these new institutions across the country in the coming years.

We wanted to find out about the students that choose to go to a UTC, what their experiences are, and what impact their UTC education has on their life chances. To investigate these questions, we began a research project to follow UTC students through Years 10 and 11.

From scepticism to surprise

UTCs are schools where 14 to 19 year olds study a technical subject, such as engineering, alongside academic subjects like English, maths and science. Previous attempts to offer young people a technical or vocational education have achieved mixed results, so we were initially a bit sceptical about the impact of UTCs. But we were astonished at what we found when we spoke to Year 10 students at two engineering-focused UTCs.

The students proudly described how they had designed and manufactured a pump for a jet engine in a project designed by Rolls-Royce. They enthusiastically told us how all of their lessons, from maths to German, were related to their engineering projects and how this bought their learning to life.

They valued the state-of-the-art-equipment, the hands-on learning and the teacher expertise. Students were very impressed at the involvement of businesses in the UTC – it was commonplace for managing directors to come and observe their classes – and they felt that this meant they were learning valuable, industry-relevant skills. As one student told us, “if somebody that powerful has given up their time, we must be doing something right.”

What was most inspiring was when students described how studying at the UTC had boosted their self-confidence as they had exceeded their expectations of they were capable of achieving; as one student commented, “you just amaze yourself with what you can do.” He said that when he started at the UTC he thought that he would be “rubbish” and “at the end of the year I’ll probably be able to make a bolt, but then you end up making something huge and you’re like ‘oh that’s amazing!’”

We are looking forward to visiting the students again when they are in Year 11. We wonder whether they’ll still be enthusiastic about their studies or whether the novelty of being at a new school will have worn off. Will they still be engaged and motivated as their GCSE exams loom closer?

With the participation age set to increase to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015, appropriate courses and assessments need to be developed. We hope that this research will help this endeavour by discovering effective ways to meet the needs of all students, not just those who favour an academic route to university.

Debra Malpass & Hayley Limmer

Preliminary results from this research project were presented at the Edge Foundation conference on 16 November 2012. Slides and a copy of the paper can be downloaded here.

Share this page