Mick Fletcher comments on possible anti-FE snobbery in the UTC movement

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It is now broadly accepted that one of the factors holding back the progress of vocational education in England is the association between different types of education and social class; the snobbery that sees academic education as being for the elite whereas vocational programmes are for the masses. While this fault is now both widely recognised and indeed often decried it is also remarkably persistent – at the same time as championing apprenticeships, for example, the government is acting to remove vocational qualifications from school league tables thus signalling their second-rate status. Schools that have sought to motivate pupils by giving access to more practical types of learning, often in association with a local FE college, are chastised for offering ‘soft options’ and lacking rigour.

There are positive moves, however, and many in FE have welcomed new initiatives to introduce studio schools and University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which allow pupils to undertake a vocational specialism alongside other elements of the national curriculum. Individual colleges have put considerable energy and expertise into helping such institutions take off and are working closely with other partners to integrate them into the local educational system, providing progression for pupils of all levels of attainment. It is therefore deeply disappointing to read the condescending comments of Charles Parker, Chief Executive of the Baker Dearing Trust, reported in the TES on 27 July 2012:

UTCs are controlled by employers and Universities… he said. While FE colleges have been agile in making approaches and getting groups together, the UTCs are legal entities that will never be controlled by FE colleges.

Yes, colleges are agile; but its quite clear from these comments that doing the heavy lifting bringing local consortia together to sponsor a UTC doesn’t count for anything compared with the social status of a university. The fact that many of our colleges offer degree level work, have close and active links with local employers and know far more about teaching vocational subjects to 14–19 year olds than any university because they do it themselves is clearly of little consequence compared with a royal charter. FE colleges are obviously the wrong sort of institutions to be associated with in public.

I would like to think that Mr Parker’s remarks have been taken out of context or ‘mis-spoken’ as the Americans say but the UTC movement has form in this regard. Under the headline ‘UTCs teach Engineering not Hairdressing’ a letter to TES in October 2011 was emphatic in asserting that ‘in no shape or form is hairdressing offered as a topic of learning’. In UTC land there are clearly second class subjects as well as second class institutions.

It doesn’t help matters when Ofsted refers to some of the FE colleges sponsoring UTCs as mediocre. Universities’ status protects them from such glib and patronising commentary but the universities sponsoring UTCs are not all members of the elite Russell Group, indeed far from it. The list of institutions sponsoring UTCs ranges in practice from the truly distinguished to the pretty average but it speaks volumes that it is the FE colleges that are singled out for public abuse.

Colleges have rolled their sleeves up and helped with the development of UTCs and studio schools because they believe in giving vocational education and the young people who participate in it a higher status. There are many across the country who share that aim. It would be tragic, therefore, if instead of helping to overcome prejudice these new institutions simply serve to perpetuate it in a new and different form.

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