Grammar and fee-paying schools will probably top the lists of schools that have done well in GCSE results out tomorrow. But the real test of our education system is if the great majority of students of all abilities in non-selective schools can improve performance and if teachers have been able to strike a spark from that piece of flint that is in everyone.
That is why I think that the greatest improvement in student performance in England over the past two years could well be at the University Technical College in Staffordshire, supported by JCB, the digger company. It opened only two years ago with 14 and 16-yearolds, so its students have just completed GCSEs and A levels.
The students selected themselves, so there is a wide range of ability. In 2010 only 57 per cent were thought likely to get A-C grades at GCSE in English and maths in 2012. In the tests before Christmas they hit a brilliant performance rate of 73 per cent; and on Monday it was announced that in the Level II functional skills tests, such as how to write a business letter, students achieved 97 per cent in English and 91 per cent in maths. So Jim Wade, the Principal, hopes for outstanding maths and English GCSE results tomorrow. Few if any schools could have added that value to the students who came through their doors two years ago.
The reason is simple. UTCs have a nine-to-five teaching day and spend 40 per cent of the week on a specialist technical or engineering curriculum where students get their hands dirty, making things and solving problems. The rest of their time is spent on maths, English, science, a foreign language, (German for engineering, not Goethe), history or geography and at least two hours of sport. English and maths are melded into engineering work and students soon realise that to be good engineers or technicians they must master numbers and be able to communicate in written and spoken English. Business and entrepreneurial skills are also built into their studies.
These youngsters did not come from privileged backgrounds. They knew that they were getting a second chance, so there was a behavioural change at 14 — they wore business clothes to college and had laptops and tools in their hands from day one. Truancy and disruptive behaviour were replaced by focus, commitment and ambition. UTCs are agents for social mobility, just as the old grammar schools once were.
At the age of 16, 57 per cent opted to stay on and 25 per cent took up apprenticeships with companies. The rest chose to study other subjects: the general education they got at the UTC made it easy to transfer. At 18, 57 per cent had offers from universities, but we never intended that all should go on to higher education. The purpose of UTCs is to create an alternative path to success to three A levels and university.
The head boy, Aiden Rogers, was offered a place at Loughborough University, something many would give their eye teeth for. But after careful consideration, he preferred a higher apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce. I asked him why: “Going to the UTC was the best thing that ever happened to me. At school I was just working for an exam, detached from reality and not connected to employment. People working in companies taught us and opened up to me a whole new world.
“I will study for a foundation degree and then a higher degree based in a company — that’s the best path for me to become a chartered engineer. UTCs should not be just for engineers; others should be set up for those wanting careers in building design and maintenance, catering and events management, sports and sports science. That’s what young people want today.”
The head girl, Holly Broadhurst, was offered a place at Sheffield Hallam University but also applied to three companies to be a higher apprentice, finally choosing JCB. She told me: “Before going to UTC I would never have dreamt of being an apprentice, but visiting companies such as Network Rail, Zytec and Parker Vansco and meeting their graduate employees was great. It wasn’t just textbook learning, which I’m not too hot at, but working on projects and problem-solving. At JCB I will be studying for a foundation degree and then a higher degree.”
I want this to be the pattern for all 33 UTCs that have been approved, because it gives youngsters a chance to become the technicians and engineers that our country so desperately needs. We need many more UTCs across the country — this is what our economy needs and what youngsters want.
Originally posted in The Times by Lord Baker of Dorking who was Education Secretary from 1986 to 1989