Ministers have been accused by MPs of failing to ensure technical schools in England deliver value for taxpayers’ money, despite pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into the programme.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that despite a three-year improvement programme for University Technical Colleges (UTCs), it was not clear what the Government’s vision was for their future.
UTCs were launched in 2010 under the coalition government and the then education secretary Michael Gove as a form of free school providing technical education for 14 to 19-year-olds.
But a highly critical report last year by the National Audit Office found that of the 58 UTCs which had originally been established, 10 had since closed.
Despite the Department for Education (DfE) spending almost £750 million on the programme, the remaining 48 were operating at 45% capacity, with half of them rated as less than good by Ofsted.
In its report, the PAC said the lack of students meant the DfE had been “propping up” the finances of UTCs for several years and that most of the additional funding would never be paid back.
It also highlighted the “unusual set-up” in which the UTC brand was owned by a charity – the Baker Dearing Trust – which received £893,000 from the DfE to support the opening of UTCs and which continues to receive an annual £10,000 licence fee from each college.
“The department is nearing the end of its three-year programme to improve the financial and educational performance of UTCs, but it is not clear what its vision is for UTCs in the future,” the committee said.
“We are concerned by the department’s apparent lack of interest in the value for money that schools are getting from using taxpayers’ money to pay the licence fee for a particular model of school on top of the already generous funding that the department gave to the trust.”
The committee chair Meg Hillier said: “An awful lot of money has gone into this idea with good results alarmingly thin on the ground – although it’s very hard to tell when the department hasn’t managed in 10 years to say what a good result is.
“It is not fair to make this kind of alternative offer to students trying to equip themselves to make a living, and then not ensure that it delivers a sustainable, quality, recognised measure of success for them.
“For students in UTCs it’s not an expensive if innovative experiment, it’s their future.”
In a statement the Baker Dearing Trust said the licence fee enabled it to provide UTCs with “hands-on” educational, financial and student recruitment support as well as fulfilling the role of liaising with Government.
The trust’s chairman, former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker, said: “UTCs offer choice for many young people, by providing a unique approach to education which meets the changing needs of students and employers in the 21st century.
“As economies adjust to the ‘new normal’ following the Covid-19 crisis, UTCs have never been more relevant in building the skills this country needs.”