With the skills shortage showing no signs of abating, our industry partners are crying out for candidates with STEM skills. As a result, now more than ever, our specialist curriculum in computing science and engineering is really appealing to businesses in the Thames Valley.
However with the news that the government is pushing ahead with plans for every student to take English Baccalaureate subjects at GCSE, and that this will come into effect for students starting Year 7 this September and for UTCs this will mean a change in curriculum from September 2018, understandably head teachers and UTCs alike fear the impact that this will have on creative and technical subjects in particular.
After winning the election, David Cameron stated that his government would implement the Conservative party's manifesto in full. This includes the pledge that all GCSE pupils will be required to study EBacc subjects: English, Maths, a science, history or geography and a modern foreign language.
There is general concern that this will limit the subjects students can take in order to meet the government's new league table measure, Progress 8, which will replace the five A*-C benchmark. Under the proposals the Progress 8 measure will track students' performance in three EBacc subjects with any three EBacc subjects counting. I am less concerned about Progress 8 and believe this is a good measure. Actually it is a little more flexible and a measure I would be happy with as a UTC in place of the EBacc. This is because it enables students to take a range of subjects, but they are also able to specialise which is what UTCs were set up to do.
I am completely in agreement with academic rigour and making sure that young people get a broad and balanced curriculum. The government's point is that the children who take GCSEs in EBacc subjects are more likely to get good jobs and go to top universities than those who do not do so, and that equality of opportunity for everybody, from whatever background, is dependent upon this common starting point.
The government argues that there is plenty of time in further education colleges, sixth-forms and universities to specialise. However I disagree. I believe that children should be able to have choice at the point which is right for them rather than wait until they are 16. Indeed at UTC Reading, we have seen that students who have specialised at 14 have actually made more progress in subjects not directly connected with their specialism because they are enjoying their education because they had a choice. I believe that the onus is on schools and UTCs to provide good curriculum guidance rather than deny students the opportunity to select subjects or dictate to them what they should study. There is no doubt that the STEM agenda conflicts with EBacc and students that have chosen to specialise may not get the opportunity to study what they want if they are pushed down the EBacc route.
Interestingly The Baker Dearing Educational Trust, the charity behind the University Technical College (UTC) model in England, completed a survey of 850 students at 28 UTCs in June 2015. Of the 110 students surveyed at UTC Reading, 94 per cent said they felt confident of getting a job that suits their skills when they leave education. That figure compares to 86 per cent for UTC students nationwide. This is evidence that young people are able to make such decisions at an early age about what subjects they want to study.
Among the other findings at UTC Reading:
• 73% feel their employment prospects are better than if they had stayed at a mainstream school
• 71% said the UTC was better than their previous school for time spent with teachers
• 78% said the UTC was better than their previous school for opportunities to get a step on the career ladder
• 92% said the UTC was better than their previous school for links with businesses and employer projects
It is very clear that our focus on educating and training the next generation of technicians, engineers and industrial innovators who can shape and drive the future of our society is already paying off. These survey results demonstrate that our students share our aspirations for their future and feel confident about forging a successful career that matches their skills and interests rather than being forced down a route which may not motivate them in quite the same way. The UTC approach is characterised by industry partnerships, which enable students to develop the technical skills required by employers and which offers valuable insights and industry contacts. This provides young people with an unrivalled transition from education into employment, via higher education, apprenticeships or direct employment.
I go back therefore to my earlier comment that this is all about providing young people with as wide a choice as possible, backed by rigorous career guidance in order that we meet both employer demand and the demands from young people. EBacc is fine for those who are not yet sure about their future career or for those who wish to study more traditional academic subjects at university, but for those that wish to specialise, UTCs offer great career opportunities. I understand that the government plans to consult EBacc in Autumn 2015, so I shall be interested to see what comes out of these discussions. Watch this space.