Cllr Ryan Stephenson – Education reform must usher in new University Technical Colleges

As printed in the Wetherby News on 5th January 2017

Last wRyan Stephenson Chamber Profile Piceek, in his New Year message, the Dalai Lama proclaimed: “If our goal is a happier, more peaceful world in the future, only education will bring change”.

These comments were directed at ongoing geopolitical conflicts, but the significance of education as the impetus for reform stretches far beyond conflict resolution and in an ever-changing world, education remains the most powerful weapon we can gift our children.

It is perhaps for this reason that education reform has featured heavily in the legislative agendas of successive UK governments and, as a result, why those in the teaching profession often feel that schools are used as political footballs. I don’t believe this to be true. Instead, I think the endeavour for a perfect one-size-fits-all system has left policymakers blind to the real opportunities that exist for young people in Britain today.

Over recent months the Department for Education has been consulting on a Green Paper entitled ‘Schools that work for everyone’. It’s perhaps an obvious desire for any administration to demand that state schools increase educational attainment for every pupil, regardless of demographic background, but is this truly possible in a one-size-fits-all environment when vast differences exist in innate academic ability?

This is the crux of the education debate today.

The Green Paper includes two ambitious and admirable aims: expecting independent schools to support existing state schools, open new state schools or offer funded places to children whose families can’t afford to pay fees; and asking universities to commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools.

This fresh focus on university-led support for new schools is particularly important and acts as a reminder of what was arguably the root-cause of challenges facing the sector today. When Tony Blair decreed that 50 per cent of all school-leavers should go on to study at university he devalued the very substance of higher education; being exclusive to those most academically able. Of course, everyone with the academic ability should have the opportunity to further their education at university, regardless of their personal financial circumstances, but this is not the same thing as suggesting that everyone, or a specific arbitrary number, should go to university.
This is where the defence of a one-size-fits-all education system at the earlier key stages falls short, because it overlooks the fact that we all learn at difference paces, in different ways, and with different abilities. What Britain really needs is a flexible all-encompassing education system able to gratify the needs of those destined for undergraduate degree courses, those who require additional coaching to achieve GCSEs, and those who wish to pursue technical qualifications in advance of an industry specific career.

It is in this particular regard that the real opportunity exists for the Department for Education to develop schools that work for everyone, and it is why University Technical Colleges (UTCs) should feature prominently in pending legislation.

The resurgence of UTCs – schools for 14 to 19 year olds – has provided greater opportunity and choice for those wishing to pursue a technical career path.

Whilst those opposed to UTCs would have you believe they’re a folly for training brickies or labourers, the truth is much more impressive.

With a special focus on science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, UTCs deliver technical, academic and practical learning in a way that it designed to be applied in the workplace. As such, a UTC curriculum – designed in conjunction with local employers and universities, includes GSCEs, A Levels and one or two technical specialisms linked to the skills gaps in the region.

Here in Leeds plans are underway for an exciting new Creative Digital University Technical College with a focus on a skills area that is already putting Leeds on the map. The region has the largest digital sector outside of London, employing 50,000 people and accounting for 4 per cent of the workforce. The establishment of a sector specific UTC could help equip a future generation of technical specialists to fill the 25,000 digital creative and ICT jobs estimated to be required in the region by 2030.

When the Government brings forward its response to the recent Green Paper it will want to create a flexible, all-encompassing education system that works for everyone, and the expansion of University Technical Colleges, such as the Creative Digital UTC in Leeds, would be an impressive way to highlight the region’s standing as a centre for practical, technical and academic prowess.

Follow Cllr Stephenson on Twitter: @Stephenson_Ryan and Facebook:fb.com/cllr.stephenson