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University Technical Colleges

Volume 534: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I am incredibly grateful for this debate. I spoke about apprenticeships and vocational training in my maiden speech, and have campaigned regularly since joining the House last year for apprenticeships and apprenticeship rights. I have now worked for many months behind the scenes with Harlow college, Anglia Ruskin university and employers in my constituency to apply for a university technical school in Harlow, which I will talk more about later.

Although universal technology colleges have not yet received the same media attention as free schools and the huge expansion of the academy programme, they are an equally profound reform of our school system. They are hugely popular, and something that we should think about in their own right.

I want to make three points. First, for decades we allowed vocational education to decline. Secondly, for growth, skills and jobs, UTCs represent the reform that we need. Thirdly, the results are positive, and we should support a massive roll-out of UTCs around the United Kingdom. When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) called the general election in 2010, there were nearly 1 million young people unemployed. The same is broadly true today. However, youth unemployment is not a recent crisis. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that it has grown steadily worse and worse over the past 10 years. In Essex, in particular, nearly 4,000 young people are not in employment, education or training. My constituency is one of the worst affected towns. We have allowed our skills base and vocational education to decline.

In the past 10 years in Austria and Germany, one in four businesses offered apprenticeships to young people, but in England that figure was just one in 10.

I am listening with great sympathy to what my hon. Friend says about his constituency, because in my area of Medway we have had a similar problem with the closure of the dockyard 25 years ago. We lost an enormous employer that had trained hundreds and thousands of apprentices, so for us, UTCs would provide a new opportunity to develop in that area. With the Royal School of Military Engineering and MidKent college, there is a real partnership approach. I look forward to learning—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is developing a most interesting argument, but I want to hear Mr Halfon.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I think that my remarks later will address some of his points.

Thanks largely to my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, and the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), the Government have increased the number of apprentices to a record level this year—up 50% to 442,700, with increases at all levels and age groups. However, we are starting from a low base. In 2009 there were about 11 apprentices for every 1,000 workers. In France that figure was 17, in Austria 33, in Australia 39, and in Germany 40. In 2009 our young people were four times worse off for apprenticeships than young people in Germany.

Considering that the Berlin wall fell only 20 years ago, that is deeply shocking and shows just how uncompetitive the UK economy has become. For years Germany reaped the benefits of its skills policy and a culture that valued apprentices and gave prestige to vocational learning. Germany built up its manufacturing and high-tech industry while we lost out, not only under the previous Government but, honestly, during the 1990s. I agree with the analysis of Lord Baker, who was one of our finest Education Secretaries and was, in many ways, the forefather of the UTC movement, along with the late Ron Dearing. Lord Baker wrote in the Yorkshire Post in 2008:

“One thing our country has missed out on is good vocational schools. Several attempts have been made since the 1870s, but they have generally fallen by the wayside. The 1944 Butler Education Act established three types of school—grammar, secondary modern and technical, but the first to disappear was the technical school as it had become”—

to quote the Latin—

“‘infra-dig’. Ironically, this English pattern was adopted by Germany in 1945 and became very successful: their youngsters who attend technical schools acquire skills in engineering, construction, manufacturing and design. Germany’s technical schools today have more applicants than their grammar schools and Germany produces several times the number of qualified technicians than the UK.”

We simply cannot afford to keep producing generation after generation of rootless university graduates with purely academic qualifications who lack the skills that industry needs.

What are UTCs, and why will they succeed where other attempts have failed? As Lords Baker and Adonis said when first proposing the UTC model, we need a vocational route that is rigorous, attractive and as prestigious as the best academic routes. That simply does not exist in our current schools system. As the Prime Minister put it recently, the expansion of UTCs will be

“the next great poverty-busting structural change we need…offering first-class technical skills to those turned off by purely academic study.”

However, the key reform is that major local employers, especially in manufacturing and industry, will help to write the curriculum, which has never been tried before. As the recent schools White Paper said:

“Pupils at the JCB Academy in…Staffordshire, will study a curriculum designed to produce the engineers and business leaders of the future…They will complete engineering tasks that have been set by JCB and other Academy partners including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Network Rail.”

Early results are positive. They prove that UTCs are an instrument of social justice, as well as economic efficiency. At the JCB academy, for example, students wear business suits. There are reports that truancy has been reduced significantly and GCSE results, particularly in the core subjects of English and Maths, have massively improved.

As Lord Baker said a few weeks ago,

“10,000 students are now set to attend University Technical Colleges by 2015”.

That means 10,000 fewer youngsters on the dole, and 10,000 more students learning the high-tech skills of the future to support British industry, manufacturing, and growth.

We are fortunate in Northern Ireland to have technical colleges—the South Eastern Regional college campus in Newtownards is an example—that give young people exactly what the hon. Gentleman is referring to: an opportunity to train, build their confidence and get a job outside, or be directed towards one. I encourage him to look up the South Eastern Regional college website to see exactly what he hopes to achieve in action.

I would be delighted to look at that website, and I would like to study it more, because it is good to see successful examples in action.

So far, 18 new UTCs have received support from the Education Secretary, with 13 announced last month, and 130 companies are supporting them, which I think is a record in industrial investment. For the past three years the Baker Dearing Educational Trust has worked with the Department for Education, the private sector, universities and further education colleges to build the network. The Chancellor has doubled the funding for UTCs and found money for at least 24. The Opposition always go on about cuts and the legacy of youth unemployment—left by the last Government, as I have mentioned—but we are talking about a concrete investment of at least £150 million, with more funds levered in from the private sector, to tackle that very issue. This is not small beer.

I agree with the thrust of everything that my hon. Friend is saying, so is it not disappointing that at least one union leader in the education sector has come out against UTCs? Is that not incredible?

My hon. Friend is almost a mind reader, because I was about to say that it is disappointing that, not so long ago, John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers said of UTCs:

“There is a real fear about a move towards selection by division, selection by direction and selection by assumption, with these routes being mapped out for kids for evermore”

That is the mindset of the left, which we have to consign to the dustbin, because UTCs will create opportunity and social justice for everyone. He is also wrong, because there are no tests to enter a UTC at 14: they are inclusive, not exclusive. To be fair, it is no accident that the Baker Dearing Educational Trust is a cross-party project that is strongly supported by Lord Adonis—who, although he is from the other side of the fence, is someone I admire greatly. The chief executive officer of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, Peter Mitchell, was a head teacher for 18 years in Walsall and Staffordshire. He turned round a failing school and was mentioned twice in the chief inspector’s report as “outstanding”. I believe that the UTC movement should unite the House, not divide it.

In conclusion, I want to talk briefly about Harlow’s bid for a UTC, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Harlow is a new town. It was built after the second world war, with a vision to change people’s lives and create jobs and growth, but its potential is still unfulfilled. School results have risen sharply over the past 10 years. Most secondary schools now perform around the national average, and this year two secondary schools became academies. I am sure that the Minister will have watched the excellent recent television programme about Passmores school.

Harlow college is now widely recognised as one of the best further education colleges in the country, with pass rates exceeding 99.5%. Anglia Ruskin university opened a campus in the town this term that now has approximately 200 students studying for degrees. Wherever I go in Harlow, parents are delighted with the idea of a new apprentice school, which is exactly what it is, and they have no ideological objections. In fact, the Harlow bid for a UTC is not opposed by the local state schools. Harlow council and Essex county council have said that they support UTCs, and would like to see a UTC in Harlow.

In the first round, we assembled a strong bid, but found out only very late in the process that Harlow was to benefit from an enterprise zone, specialising in bio-tech and medical technology. In his feedback, Lord Hill was very fair and made the point that we should now reflect the new enterprise zone in our bid. That was the right decision; it is worth taking the time to get the bid right.

The Harlow partners are responding to that feedback. Anglia Ruskin is broadening its university courses, to meet the needs of the emerging “MedTech” enterprise zone, with firms like Bupa Home Healthcare. Harlow council is delivering the proposed “MedTech” campus—a specialised industrial estate, which will employ the highly skilled technicians that a UTC provides. Harlow already has several biotech and pharmaceutical firms, such as GlaxoSmithKlein, and is in the London-Cambridge science corridor. We have several strong local hospitals—primarily Princess Alexandra hospital and the Rivers private hospital in Sawbridgeworth. The Health Protection Agency is considering a move to Harlow, partly because of its own financial position, and partly because of the enterprise zone. I hope that in due course it too will have a need for medical technicians and engineers. In the second wave of UTC applications we hope to include medical technology as one of the Harlow specialisms, and to submit an even stronger bid. I hope that the Minister was listening very carefully to that last statement.

If there is one thing that I would urge the Minister to do, it would be to go much further and much faster. As the Baker Dearing Educational Trust has said:

“The Government has committed to funding 24 UTCs. But we hope to see 100 within five years.”

We know that public spending is constrained, but UTCs offer us the chance to get back to the great vision of Rab Butler, who sought to establish a high-quality technical education in Britain for the first time. It is worth quoting what Rab Butler said in this very House about his Bill in 1944:

“It is very wrong that in so many parts of England, particularly in industrial areas, which I have visited myself, that decades have been allowed to elapse before the technical development necessary for education in those areas has come to anything at all. There are many towns and cities I have been to in which the technical college has always been the mirage in the distance across the other side of the desert. We cannot allow that state of affairs to go on, and that is why we insist that there should be a proper development of technical education...Compared to our competitors, friends and enemies, we shall…depend more than anything else on the skill of our people...therefore…we must concentrate upon producing the most highly-skilled technologists the world can show.”—[Official Report, 23 March 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1086.]

Exactly the same is true today.

It is not enough just to support and fund UTCs; we have to evangelise about them. Just the other week the statement on UTCs was tacked on to the end of the statement on free schools at the end of a long day—just after the former Defence Secretary had also addressed the House. UTCs, however, are not just an extension of free schools; they will transform our skills base and the lives of young people, and they will be a conveyor belt to professional apprenticeships. They are the phase 1 of an apprentice revolution in Britain and the reaction from the public—parents, students and others—has been unbelievably positive. That is why they have to be centre-stage, not backstage. When the second round is announced next year—including Harlow, I hope—I would like UTCs to get a separate statement in their own right, showing that they are a forceful answer to the youth unemployment that we have inherited. They will then prove that the apprenticeships are no longer second class, and are now first class.

I hope that, ultimately, every British student will be able to say—just as my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning said yesterday at a UTC reception in the House—“I only became an academic because I wasn’t clever enough to be practical.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate, and thank him for encouraging me to contribute to it, albeit very briefly. I am a great admirer of the work that he has done to promote education, both in the House and in his constituency. In the short time for which he has been a Member of Parliament, he has made an enormous contribution to education and to education debates.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to host a reception on the House of Commons Terrace for university technical colleges—which was also attended by my hon. Friend—together with Lord Baker of Dorking, who, as my hon. Friend said, is chairman of the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, and is a passionate advocate of UTCs. That reception was instructive. It was attended by people from all over the country, from the great and the good to the UTC community and the many who want to be members of that community—and it was clear from the attendance at that reception that very many people want to join it. It was also highly informative to hear so many positive stories from those who have been involved in the UTCs that have been set up, and to learn how well the schools are doing.

It was said at the reception that the UTCs had become a movement. I have the impression that there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness the enormous energy and good will towards UTCs that emanate from the Government, universities, further education colleges and, in particular, private businesses. In many ways, that is not surprising, because the enthusiasm spans the political divide. In most respects, UTCs have secured a cross-party consensus. Both Lord Baker and Lord Adonis have, in different ways, put their fingerprints on their creation. Just to complete the all-party celebration, we have a coalition Government who are expanding the new schools and delivering a big increase in their number. I am delighted to say that my constituency will gain a UTC, and that large numbers of private businesses are supporting it. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field)—I hope he does not mind my mentioning this—told me that he had taken Lord Baker to his constituency to lobby him for the creation of a new UTC.

As I have said, this is very much a cross-party movement, and I hope that it will continue to be so. Let me explain why. I think all parties clearly understand that Britain lags behind some of our European neighbours in its approach to technical education. My hon. Friend mentioned Germany—a country which, as a European industrial powerhouse, boasts a long history of taking its technical education seriously. Consequently, the Germans have benefited. Germany is now an incredibly successful exporter as a result of its continued investment in its technical skills base.

UTCs offer our country a real opportunity to plug a gap, to catch up and to take the next step on a journey towards supporting, and indeed creating, a more technically based economy and industry. That journey has been damagingly slow for the UK. Rab Butler’s Education Act 1944 recognised secondary technical schools under the tripartite system, but there was little progress until Lord Baker’s city technology college scheme in the 1980s. In fact, it has taken more than 60 years for this whole strategy to reach the point of lift-off.

Technical education has often not been taken seriously, and has frequently been recorded as secondary to the academic route. Well, we can finally put that right, and in so doing, plug a skills shortage and unlock the boundless potential of thousands of young people in this country whose gifts just happen to lie in the technical rather than the academic area.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) are well-informed and passionate promoters of education in their constituencies and throughout the country. I also listened intently to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), in which he extolled the importance of university technical colleges.

UTCs are an innovative and important part of our school reforms. Through new academies for 14 to 19-year-olds, we are for the first time providing opportunities for school pupils to develop the technical knowledge and expertise that employers demand and our economy needs. UTCs offer pupils high-quality technical and vocational education and clear progression routes at 19 into either higher or further education, or work or apprenticeships.

As Members will know, UTCs sit alongside free schools and academies at the heart of our ambitious reform of the school system. They aim to drive up educational attainment for all pupils and students, regardless of their background, and to improve our performance in relation to the highest-performing systems in the world. UTCs offer choice to parents and pupils, in particular those best suited to a more technical approach to education. They also provide competition to other schools, thus encouraging them to raise their game.

UTCs specialise in subjects that need modern, technical, industry-standard equipment, such as engineering, construction, product design and life sciences. These disciplines are taught alongside business and ICT. Students also integrate academic study with practical education, and so study the core GCSEs alongside technical qualifications, thus covering the basics of English, mathematics, science and often a language and one of the humanities.

UTCs are sponsored by a local university, employers and, in most cases, a further education college with strengths in the UTC’s specialist subject areas. That helps to ensure aspirational pathways to higher education, as well as access to opportunities within industry. UTCs are unique in that they develop their education around the needs of local employers and industry. Crucially, the UTC specialisms and the curriculum are designed by the university and employer sponsors. UTCs link local partners into the design and delivery of the education, and also provide mentoring and meaningful work experience for pupils. UTCs have much the same freedoms as free schools and academies. That allows them to be innovative, such as by choosing to employ engineers with an industry background alongside qualified teachers, by developing and delivering innovative projects for pupils, and by using an extended school day of 8.30 am to 5.30 pm and a longer school year of 40 weeks to prepare students for the world of work.

Two UTCs are already open: the JCB academy in Staffordshire, and the Black Country UTC in Walsall. Thanks to the leadership shown by Lords Baker and Adonis, as well as the late Lord Dearing, coupled with the vision of Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB, the first UTC opened its doors in September last year. It specialises in engineering and business. Its belief is that no matter how good an engineer someone is, if they cannot do business too, they will not survive. That is the reality of manufacturing in the global economy, and we must prepare our school leavers to join it if they are to compete—and succeed—in the years ahead.

The JCB academy is delivering its curriculum in partnership with a range of national and local employers. For instance, Rolls-Royce has set students the challenge of designing and manufacturing a small piston pump. This involves designing and manufacturing a specific rig, modelling in 3D animation software, producing drawings and then visiting the factory to see how the real ones are made. The whole project has allowed pupils to see their work from initiation to design and then on to delivery, with Rolls-Royce engineering apprentices helping pupils throughout. Senior Rolls-Royce staff presented to the pupils how a jet engine works and the realities of planning in local and international businesses. The benefits to pupils are clear: they get top-quality technical education. The benefits for Rolls-Royce are also undeniable. It gets the continuing professional development of engineers, graduates and apprentices; an increased pupil awareness of Rolls-Royce as an employer; and a role in helping to shape education in the region. This is leading the way in how employers are now getting involved in UTCs up and down the country.

The second UTC that opened earlier this term is now providing similar opportunities for its pupils in one of the most deprived areas of the black country. There, the partnership between Siemens, Walsall college and the university of Wolverhampton is reinvigorating the black country’s engineering heritage. It is, of course, early days, with one school open for just half a term and one open for just a year and a half, but already we are beginning to see the effect of the approach, and it is impressive. The JCB academy reports exemplary behaviour and attendance, as pupils are engaged in their lessons. That positive impact is found not just in the technical subjects, as standards of English and maths look to be on the rise as well. We look forward to hearing their results next summer.

On 10 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the next wave of UTCs due to open in 2012 and 2013 across the country. Between them, they will provide a new generation of school leavers with the technical expertise that industry demands. More than 130 major national and local employers were involved in developing these successful projects—that is a truly immense contribution from industry in our education system. These UTCs will join the two that are already open and three projects in Hackney, Aston and Greenwich that were previously approved. The new projects ensure there will now be UTCs in every region. Russell group universities are joining companies such as Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble and BlackBerry, and outstanding colleges and academies. The first of these new UTCs will open at the start of the next academic year and the rest will open the following year.

My hon. Friends and other hon. Members will be aware of the huge interest in one of these new UTCs in particular—the Silverstone academy. It will be based within the grounds of the 800 acres of the Silverstone circuit, it will cater for 540 pupils when at full capacity and it will specialise principally in high-performance engineering and motorsport. It is sponsored by Tresham college of further and higher education, the university of Northampton and Silverstone Circuits Ltd, and it is due to open in September 2013. It will be a unique establishment that will allow students to work alongside nationally and internationally renowned engineering businesses already located at the circuit. It will provide opportunities for students to access work experience and to progress on to a wide and diverse range of job opportunities or further and higher education. The UTC expects significant demand from pupils; indeed, it has already received inquiries and that is before—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).