The Department for Education is on a matchmaking drive.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi is currently overseeing several initiatives aimed at driving integration between education sectors.
Universities are being tasked with doing more with schools to help disadvantaged pupils, with a push on reformed access and participation plans being led by the Office for Students’ new director for fair access and participation, John Blake. And universities are also working more closely with colleges and employers through the Institutes of Technology programme. Skills minister Alex Burghart has praised the project for bringing educators together with employers like Fujitsu and Siemens, with the minister predicting IoTs will become “the pinnacle of technical education”.
The further education sector is being pushed to spend more time getting to know their local areas through local skills improvement plans, matching up each college’s provision with the needs of local employers. It can also be argued that a wider variety of skills policies, such as T Levels and Higher Technical Qualifications, are an attempt to make technical education integrate more easily with the well-established academic education route.
So integration is an overarching theme to the DfE’s skills reform programme, with ministers and officials eager to break down the barriers between the traditionally siloed education sectors.
We cannot ignore the work that headteachers, principals, and vice chancellors have already put into dismantling these barriers. Providers, including London South Bank University and Activate Learning, have started their own multi-academy trusts.. But what impact will integrating education sectors have?
My organisation, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, supports over 50 university technical colleges (or UTCs) nationwide to deliver a technical education-focused curriculum in a secondary school setting. Each UTC has a university partner and over 70 per cent of UTCs are now part of multi-academy trusts (MATs).
Through the UTC programme we have seen how integrating different education sectors, especially schools and higher education, has produced benefits in two key areas – resourcing and progression – but we also know that success depends on strong, formalised channels of communication.
Institutions which work closely together can often share resources including specialist facilities to provide students with a wider range of opportunities than their education setting can supply on its own.
For instance, pupils at Aston University Engineering Academy, a UTC, benefit from access to specialist teaching and facilities at the university, which shares their campus. We welcome the move by several UTCs to become part of a MAT as they have benefited from additional capacity and being able to blend more seamlessly into the local education landscape. At the same time, the UTC can act as a centre of technical excellence for the MAT’s schools.
Several UTCs have also lowered their enrolment age, from 14 to as low as 12, allowing staff to work much more closely with surrounding primary and secondary schools. It also gives younger pupils the chance to experience a broader education offer which may suit their learning style and ambitions for the future more than a solely academically focussed route.
Integrating education sectors such as schools and universities can also positively impact pupils’ progression rates, whether that be to apprenticeships, further and higher education, or employment. Improving outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, as well as closing the attainment gap between them and their peers, is a key focus of John Blake. He warned during a speech in February the attainment gap,
affects who goes into higher education – which institutions they can attend, what support they will need, what academic outcomes they achieve, and what lives and careers they go on to.
Higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan has also stressed the importance of communicating to disadvantaged young people that they will be supported through school, college, and university to “achieve a positive outcome for themselves”.
A close working relationship with higher education institutions is the silver bullet for ensuring good rates of pupil progression. One third of the students at Aston University Engineering Academy who progress to university choose Aston University. Ofsted has also commented approvingly on the school’s “strong links” with the university.
South Bank UTC, part of London South Bank University Group, has played a vital role in what the university’s vice chancellor David Phoenix calls the “supply chain”. Students progress from the group’s academy, through a level 4 with the UTC, and onto a degree with the university.
In 2021, 55 per cent of year 13 UTC pupils went on to pursue higher education, compared with 50 per cent nationally.
As Julian Crockford from Villiers Park wrote for Wonkhe earlier this month, effective communication between schools and higher education is a key barrier to integration. We welcome that the DfE is pushing for bonds between different education institutions and stakeholders to be codified through access and participation plans and local skills improvement plans, to name two examples. This will formalise the relationship and encourage an open channel of communication between all partners, through governance frameworks and knowledge exchange.
With the success we have seen, it now feels the right time to grow. We will be bidding to take part in the next wave of free schools in education investment areas, as set out in the levelling up white paper. Building on our close working relationship with universities, and with the support of the Department for Education, we want to ensure disadvantaged, bright students to achieve their full potential.
It is outcomes like these which must guide reform, as well as the education sector’s attitudes to reform. The UTC programme has shown that closer working between colleges, schools, training providers, and universities can improve the resources and progression opportunities available to young people. But this must be based on strong, formal channels of communication.