It’s an unusual sight in a British school. Michael Micallef is kitted out in safety goggles and blue overalls, expertly operating machinery that wouldn’t look out of place on the workshop floor of one of Europe’s top manufacturers.

The 18-year-old says – with considerable pride – that what he does feels more like working for a company than going to school. He is one of a growing number of teenagers to attend a new kind of school in England known as a university technical school or UTC.

Pupils, parents, employers and government ministers have high hopes that these schools will reduce youth unemployment – at a near 20-year peak – by equipping youngsters with the sorts of skills the country’s engineering and manufacturing firms have long cried out for.

In the past 30 years, there have been a number of aborted attempts at introducing a vocational education system on a par with Germany’s. Ministers have had qualifications designed – at a cost of millions of pounds – to create work-ready teenagers, only to drop the courses years later because of limited take-up. The latest casualty has been “academic diplomas” in humanities, languages and science, which were to combine work-based training and traditional study. They were abandoned in 2010, a year before they were to be officially introduced.

UTCs, however, herald a promising fresh start.

Micallef’s UTC in Rocester, Staffordshire, is named after the world’s third-largest construction equipment manufacturer – JCB – whose headquarters are down the road. The academy is one of two UTCs to have already opened. Seventeen others are in the pipeline.

The schools have a specialism, which tends to be engineering but for some will be construction, digital media or anything that requires practical skills and specialised equipment. The specialism dominates a quarter to two-thirds of the curriculum.

Pupils at UTCs, who are aged 14 to 19, are set real workplace tasks, such as designing a pump for a jet engine or investigating the materials needed to help trains change direction.

During the year, students at Micallef’s school are assigned five eight-week projects. After each task, they present their findings to a panel of employees from companies that work with the school and help design the projects. The local university helps out developing the curriculum.

The schools are state-funded. Neither the companies nor the university provide extra cash – just their employees’ time.

Students are required to take GCSEs in English, maths, at least two sciences, technology and a foreign language. Where possible, teachers relate these subjects to the school’s specialism so at the JCB academy, where the specialism is engineering, teenagers analyse the words in a car advert as part of their English lesson and write essays on Sir Frank Whittle, the English inventor of the turbojet engine.

Micallef and his classmates believes he has improved his job prospects by going to a UTC. “In interviews, I can talk about the practical side of things,” he says. “I can show them I know how to use a lathe and I’ve got a portfolio of work for them to view. In a community school, you learn a subject and then you sit a test.”

Jim Wade, the headteacher, says there are more companies interested in becoming involved in the JCB academy than he has space for. Pupils know these firms are under no compulsion to hire them, but, as Charlie Crawshaw, 14, says, “at least we have the sense that we have a foot in the right door”.

More than 100 senior engineers come to the school each year to help pupils with their work. Will Wainwright, 18, who hopes to study engineering at university, says these visits are “the greatest way to learn”. “You just listen to what they say – they’ve had 20-plus years of experience in their field.”

The first cohort of pupils will leave the JCB academy this summer and, so far, their prospects are looking rosy. Half have offers to study engineering at university and the other half are waiting to hear whether they have been successful in interviews for apprenticeships.

Wade says at most of England’s schools, pupils very often move between lessons – and therefore subjects – every 50 minutes and this makes it harder for them to acquire the skills they need for the workplace.

“By spending that much longer with our students because of the project work we do, we can help them develop team-building and communication skills,” he says. Pupils are more likely to see the relevance of what they are learning because it is set in the context of the “real world”, he argues.

But, while some politicians hope for at least 100 UTCs to be open by 2015, Wade is not getting carried away. UTCs are probably suitable for about 10% of the school population, he says. “If you want to be a dancer, for example, you wouldn’t come here.”

There is another problem that is likely to prevent UTCs from opening up in great numbers across the country in the near future: British snobbery.

“We’re still at the stage where if someone asks a young person what they are studying and they say Latin, we reply ‘how fantastic’,” Wade says. “If they say they are doing a diploma in engineering, we say ‘oh, right’.

“As a country, we still make value judgments about technical education, but at least there’s now clearly a recognition that we need to do something about that.” Jessica ShepherdRocester, StaffordshireThe Guardian

Paul Champion

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