Bridging the skills gap

Bridging the skills gap

University Technical Colleges, UTCs, are at the forefront of the national drive in STEM teaching. The North East is to get two as Peter Jackson reports.

This summer work starts, beside the new Hitachi train plant in Newton Aycliffe, to build UTC South Durham, the region’s first UTC, to be opened in September 2016. Next year, it is planned that work will also begin on a second UTC, North East Futures, to be located somewhere in Newcastle, to be opened in September 2017.

The government funded colleges will teach 14 to 18-year-olds, with an emphasis on STEM subjects, and with the involvement of local employers. For UTC South Durham, University of Sunderland is the sponsor and for North East Futures it is a co-sponsor.

There are some 30 UTCs now around the UK and about another 10 ready for opening this September. UTCs are the brainchild of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, set up by Lord Baker, former Education Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet, and the late Lord Dearing, one-time head of the Post Office and senior civil servant.

Baker and Dearing identified the growing threat of the skills shortage facing the UK in engineering and manufacturing.

Gary Holmes, pro-vice chancellor and dean of faculty at University of Sunderland and chairman of the board of trustees for UTC South Durham, explains: “We’ve still got high unemployment in the North East, we’ve got a thriving engineering industry, but those employers are finding difficulties in recruiting skilled people at all levels, from semi-skilled to graduate engineers and this is a litany we hear all the time.

“But, at all those levels the jobs are there and if we don’t supply some or all of that labour force, from our own training and education resources, it will come from somewhere else or the jobs will move elsewhere.’’

Most important, particularly with a General Election looming, UTCs enjoy support from across the political spectrum and the university sounded out the local MPs. Unlike Free Schools, UTCs are untainted by any suspicion of political ideology inspiring their foundation.

Bob Paton, managing director of Accenture’s Newcastle Delivery Centre, which is sponsoring North East Futures, points out that Conservative Chancellor George Osborne announced the college but that Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt is also a big supporter.

Paton, however, explains that it is the support of business which is critical to the UTCs. “A UTC is all about business and education working together. The region could be so much more successful if business and education worked together to give young people the work-ready skills.’’

Between the ages 14 to 15, UTC students spend 60% of their time studying the national curriculum and 40% of their time on a technology which is specific to an individual UTC. Between the ages of 16 and 18 those percentages are reversed.

UTC South Durham, which is sponsored by Hitachi and Gestamp Tallent, will focus on specialised manufacturing and engineering. North East Futures, which is sponsored by Accenture and the Academic Health Sciences Network, will focus on IT and Health Care Sciences.

The governance of a UTC is similar to that of an academy. UTC South Durham, for example, has five trustees: from Hitachi, Gestamp, two from the university and a head teacher trustee. They appoint the governors and have appointed a principal Tom Dower.

Like an academy, it will be funded on a pound per pupil basis at the average rate of the local authority. The sponsors will not be expected to make cash contributions but, Holmes says their contribution in kind “has been staggering already’’.

The university could supply services such as estate or payroll issues where it makes business sense.

Is there any educational contribution? “There is in that we will do for the UTC, on a large scale, what we would do for any partner school where we have an interest,’’ says Holmes.

“That would include very obvious things like demonstration sessions, master classes, science events, STEM awareness activities. We do some of this kind of thing already, even down to primary school level. We might send in one of our computer engineers to demonstrate some software applications, we might send in one of our automotive engineers to demonstrate something to do with battery technology.’’

Given the somewhat ad hoc nature of this educational involvement on the part of universities, why are they such a fundamental part of the model? Why University Technical Colleges?

“Baker and Dearing saw – and I think it’s not a bad insight – that if you could attach a university to each of those [UTCs] it would give it an image; a backing and authority that simply calling it a college wouldn’t. So they insisted that every UTC has a university as part of its sponsorship team.’’

And, presumably, a university’s involvement helps to underwrite quality, as no university will want its name linked to a poorly performing school?

“There’s a lot of reputational risk,’’ concedes Holmes. “It would be very much in our interests for this to succeed and, although we’ve not got such a central involvement with the Newcastle UTC, it wouldn’t be good for us either. You’re right, it gives us an incentive and Lord Baker’s condition does de-risk the notion a little bit.’’

So what’s in it for the universities? “The first is about education qua education,’’ says Holmes. “We are a civic university and we are already heavily involved with the region’s schools, through the academies in Sunderland for example.

We are still a huge teacher training university and we have teacher training partnerships with hundreds of schools in the region and we have a stake in better qualified and more confident young people because, in the end, that benefits all our universities and not least our own.

“Much more selfishly our involvement with those important employers is important for us too. The relationship we now have with Hitachi and Gestamp is very important to us. It means we can offer them our expertise and they can come to us in a very open and easy way if they want to collaborate on something and it means we have access to some of their expertise and insight.

“There’s something about having a joint voice on issues of regional economic importance. With Hitachi, the university, Gestamp speaking together on an issue, it counts for something. It’s also very important that big organisations coming in like Hitachi understand the role that higher education plays in the region.’’

UTC South Durham has been in the planning for two years and got the Department for Education go-ahead last August. Since then Northern Education Associates have been appointed as project managers and the board of trustees has been appointed and a funding agreement was reached in March.

The building will cost less than £10m, reflecting the college’s relatively small size. The centrepiece of the college will be an engineering hall, which will be large enough to accommodate a train carriage.

A particular challenge for any UTC is recruiting students at the age of 14 when they are already with established secondary schools.

“The whole premise of a UTC is that it recruits across a sub region; it’s not meant to rob the local schools of all their students,’’ says Holmes. “We’ll be recruiting from the whole of South Durham and Darlington, into Teesside, Sedgefield and beyond.’’

The college is looking for a minimum of between 70 and 100 students in each year group, making between 150 and 200 in the first year. When fully recruited it would have a maximum of 600 students.

As a STEM focused institution, it will not be offering a full range of arts subjects. Apart from STEM subjects, the college will offer a minimum number of other GCSEs in non-STEM subjects.

Students will put in a longer working day, typically from 8.30am to 4.30pm or 5pm, doing homework on the premises. Being located on a business park, it is hoped that many students will be able to travel to and from college with their parents.

Surprisingly, one of the issues which is proving hardest to resolve is what the students will wear. “That’s a real teaser for us,’’ says Holmes. “Our marketing team at the university have been researching dress codes and uniforms at other UTCs to see what they are doing.

They fall pretty much 50/50 between a business dress for engineering, which could be hoodies at one end to smart/casual at the other, through to formal school uniforms with ties, skirts and blouses and so on.’’

Practical considerations can make things such as ties awkward in an engineering environment. It is felt that the uniform will begin to define the youngsters the college wants to recruit, hence the agonising. “It’s a real challenge for us,’’ says Holmes. “We’ve not decided.’’

Decisions on dress code are still a long way down the track for North East Futures UTC which is also occupying much of his time, even while UTC South Durham is still in the embryonic stage, though the university’s relationship with North East Futures UTC is
as a co-sponsor, not the lead, a role filled by Accenture.

The employer partners in this proposal are going through a bid preparation process. This has been scrutinised by the DfE, which gave permission to proceed in March. Over the next two and a half years before opening, it will have to follow in the footsteps of South Durham, getting policies and financial plans approved, appointing a principal, trustees and a governing body.

“The skill set and challenges behind North East Futures are different,’’ says Holmes. “Every UTC is a variant on the theme of engineering, but North East Futures is going to specialise in digital technology with particular reference to health sciences. That is because of the skills shortage that is going to get worse because of the importance of digital diagnostics to the health service.

“As well as traditional digital engineering with people like Sage on board and Accenture,
it’s noteworthy that the health service is a partner in this.’’ He points also to a difference in the context and location.

“This will be in the city of Newcastle and therefore it will be drawing from an essentially urban footprint, even though, depending on where it’s located, if it was near a Metro station, it could recruit from a very large area. Wherever you put it, it’s going to be close to another school, so it’s possibly going to be a little more controversial.’’

It does, however, have the support of the City Council, which is currently working with the trustees on various site options, which could involve a new-build or a rebuild.


Bob Paton of Accenture was inspired to explore the possibility of a UTC in Newcastle, when he heard Lord Baker speak at an event at RTC North, of which Paton is chairman. He says: “I really got what he was saying about the benefit of vocational training and I came away from that thinking it would be a good idea to have an IT UTC.

Subsequently we joined forces with other people at the event and we thought it would be a good idea to have a joint IT health care sciences UTC.’’ It received the backing of Accenture, Sage, HP and various hospital trusts, as well as University of Sunderland and two sector networks: the Academic Health Sciences Network and Dynamo, the North East IT network.

Like UTC South Durham, the aim is eventually to have up to 600 students. “Healthcare sciences and IT are really prospering in the North East,’’ says Paton. “Newcastle is a UK centre for research into ageing. It’s about making sure we have the right people with the right skills to go into both sectors.’’

He adds: “Accenture is growing in the North East, technology is growing in the North East and we want to increase the pool of young people with the right work ready skills to join the likes of Accenture or the wider IT community.’’

The catchment area for the college will be Tyneside, Wearside, Northumberland and County Durham. Although recruiting from slightly different areas, for different sectors, central to both colleges, apart from University of Sunderland, is the close involvement of businesses.

Holmes says: “The raison d’etre and the vision common to all UTCs comes back to that skills challenge and the involvement of the employers. It’s a very different employer relationship to what you currently get. Typically a secondary school goes to a local employer and they do work placements and they might send in people to do party pieces, but it’s not about the same organic involvement.

“With a UTC, the employers are there at the planning stage. With the engineering curriculum we are devising in South Durham, Gestamp and Hitachi are already staking out their ground on which options within BTech Engineering and which skills areas we could pursue. That means that they can then support that through helping the staff design the project work, which is critical to that STEM curriculum.’’

“It’s all about real life, work experience with employers,’’ says Paton. “It’s about getting our young people ready for work and making sure that when they join their industry sectors they are ready to make a big difference. We have a great opportunity in the North East for business to really work with education for young people.’’