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Government spent nearly £800m on under-performing, 'half-full' colleges

PUBLISHED: 10:24 30 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:09 30 October 2019

University Technical College Norfolk, on the southern fringe of Norwich, which opened in 2014. A government report has criticised the UTC project. Photo: Archant

University Technical College Norfolk, on the southern fringe of Norwich, which opened in 2014. A government report has criticised the UTC project. Photo: Archant

Archant © 2014

Technical schools which have absorbed hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are often half full and scoring lower exam results than other secondaries, a government investigation has found.

Students at University Technical College Norfolk, which has had its Ofsted rating raised from 'requires improvement' to 'good' in May 2019. Picture: CHPVStudents at University Technical College Norfolk, which has had its Ofsted rating raised from 'requires improvement' to 'good' in May 2019. Picture: CHPV

University technical colleges (UTCs) - a type of free school which usually teaches a mix of vocational and academic subjects to students aged 14 to 19 - are also less likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

But East Anglia's only UTC claims its experience is at odds with the report and that it is getting stronger year-on-year.

The NAO's investigation found the Department for Education had pumped £792m into the university technical college programme between its launch in 2010 and 2019.

A total of 58 UTCs have opened in the past nine years but 10 (17pc) have since closed.

University Technical College Norfolk principal Alex Hayes.
PHOTO: Nick ButcherUniversity Technical College Norfolk principal Alex Hayes. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

The NAO found that those still open as of January this year were operating, on average, at 45pc capacity and have performed less well than other schools in a number of performance measures at GCSE level.

The only UTC in East Anglia is University Technical College Norfolk in Hall Road, Norwich, which opened in September 2014.

It was judged to require improvement at its first Ofsted inspection in March 2017 with concerns about inconsistent teaching and behaviour.

It has since been re-ranked as good following the inspectorate's second visit in May this year, with inspectors praising its curriculum and success in getting students into employment and training.

Workshop areas of the University Technical College Norfolk in Norwich, pictured before its opening in September 2014. Photo: ArchantWorkshop areas of the University Technical College Norfolk in Norwich, pictured before its opening in September 2014. Photo: Archant

But it has consistently lagged behind in GCSE results, with the percentage of pupils achieving grades 9 to 4 (roughly equivalent to A* to C) in English and maths at 61pc in 2017, 63pc in 2018 and 60pc in 2019. The national average for the past two years has been around 67pc.

University Technical College Norfolk principal Alex Hayes said student numbers were up by 30pc to 340 this September, with numbers expected to hit 400 in 2020 and the new year 10 intake for next year already oversubscribed. Its listed capacity is 600 places.

He said: "Five years after opening, we feel that we are in a strong position where we can offer an excellent educational experience and support our students to progress to many exciting destinations. 
"Typically, the majority of our students go into apprenticeships with the remainder progressing to university."

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee of public accounts, said the report provided further evidence that the Department for Education was a major cause for concern.

University Technical College Norfolk (UTCN) unveils a new board in honour of its industry liaison group, made up of employers who support the college and its students, in 2017.

Picture: Nick ButcherUniversity Technical College Norfolk (UTCN) unveils a new board in honour of its industry liaison group, made up of employers who support the college and its students, in 2017. Picture: Nick Butcher

She said: "UTCs were set up to improve technical education but 17pc of UTCs that opened have since closed, leaving hard-pressed local authorities to find alternative places for the students affected."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We have been clear that the department is committed to ensuring people have access to high-quality technical education across the country.

"As this report recognises, we have taken significant action to support and raise the profile of UTCs to make sure they continue to play a role in our diverse education system and provide the skills that employers need."

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