On the merits of Peterborough’s new University Technical College

gputc07:09 Wednesday 23rd September 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: It might not have been the smoothest start for a new school in Peterborough, but next September the University Technical College will open its doors in the city, and hopefully there will be a few students there. The £10 million UTC was meant to open this September, but in March BBC Radio Cambridgeshire found that after only 40 students applied, the cutting of the ribbon was being postponed by twelve months. The Trust board said at the time it was to give more certainty to prospective students. Well today to great fanfare the keys to the new building will be handed over to the Greater Peterborough UTC. Dr Alan McMurdo is the Principal Designate of the new school. Morning Alan.
ALAN MCMURDO: Good morning Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So explain just briefly what the idea of a UTC is.
ALAN MCMURDO: Well our aim is to provide world-class vocational education to young people in the city and the wider area. Plug in that skills gap that we hear so much about in construction and in engineering. So the aim is to .. we’re opening a school for 14 to 19 year olds. They can come and experience a unique curriculum and a unique offer in the area.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And you’ve now got the keys to the building, or you will do later on. Actually it’s a year earlier than you need them I suppose.
ALAN MCMURDO: Well that’s right, but it does give us an opportunity to open the building and get some people in. We’ve got an open evening tonight for example between 6 and 8. On Saturday 17th October we’ve got a morning, 10 until 2. We’ve got activities going on. So we’re able to get in there and use the building, even though it’s not fully kitted out with all the state of the art stuff that we will be putting in next Spring.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And remind us why the opening was delayed by a year.

ALAN MCMURDO: Well I think you summed it up Dotty, the need for certainty. You remember we were going into a period of purdah around the General Election. We had over 40 applicants actually, and a number of these are still staying with us. But we needed .. Trust board took a decision to give those young people some certainty about their school place for that September. So we’re working hard. We’ve got a team around the project now, and we’re working hard on recruiting students.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Right. So it definitely wasn’t because you just didn’t have enough students to make the first year of the college work?
ALAN MCMURDO: No that’s right it wasn’t, and as we said at the time, we had the students. But we needed to be frank with them and frank with the general public. We’re using public funds. We’re opening a world-class institution in the area. And we needed to get it right. So this deferment year is giving us that opportunity.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Suppose you’d only had 40 or 50 students in the first year of the college. Would that public funding still have been forthcoming?
ALAN MCMURDO: Yes. Schools receive their funding for each student, so the funds are drawn down depending on the number of students. So clearly there’s a critical mass that you need to have a thriving school, but it’s the same in any school in the country.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well let’s talk to Eric Winstone, who is also with me this morning. Morning Eric.
ERIC WINSTONE: Morning Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You’re the former Principal of Ormiston Bushfield Academy in Peterborough, and I understand that you’ve got a few concerns about this UTC project. Tell me what they are.
ERIC WINSTONE: I don’t think they’re particularly concerns Dotty. I think first of all the vision of UTC that Lord Baker had is a very good one. And Alan’s quite right. We need to fill that skills gap that is missing, particularly in Peterborough by the way. And we need to encourage more and more young people to take up those particular subjects that the UTC will focus on and offer. I think the issue is whether or not there is the student capacity in the city to fill those places, and indeed the motivation and desire for young people and parents to want to take up the places.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Right. So you fear that in fact this new college is meeting a need which there isn’t the demand for.
ERIC WINSTONE: Well I think there should be a demand for it, and I think the issue will be whether secondary schools in Peterborough want to encourage and direct people already attending those schools to the UTC for that particular focused curriculum experience that they’ll get. That’s the challenge it faces. We’re told demographically there are enough students now and over the next five years, and there is need for new places. And this is just obviously a very good alternative offer.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So why might schools not want to send their pupils to the UTC?
ERIC WINSTONE: Well I’m not sure it’s a case of saying they don’t want to. I think it’s a case of saying .. making sure that the students understand the offer, and what that experience will bring. But as you well know, once young people are settled and happy at a particular school, they’re very reluctant for them to move, particularly if they live in the local area, and that’s why their parents chose the school in the first place.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Alan, what do you say to that concern, that schools aren’t going to want to recommend the UTC?
ALAN MCMURDO: Yes I hear what Eric is saying. I’m grateful to him for reinforcing the fact that we’re providing an absolutely unique opportunity here. And for a lot of youngsters, their school experience isn’t quite appropriate. It doesn’t quite fit. And we’re offering a head and hands experience. So it’s theoretical and it’s practical. And youngsters don’t get that in ordinary schools in the area. Now we’ve worked very hard with colleague head teachers to make sure that what we are offering is absolutely unique, and not treading on any school’s toes. And so therefore, if we’re putting the children at the heart of this equation, we ought to be meeting their needs. And we’re able to do that for a significant number of young people. But Eric is absolutely right. Unless schools take that information advice and guidance, what we used to call careers education, unless schools take that seriously, and look at getting their young people into the most appropriate courses, then it is a struggle. But we’re optimistic. All the head teachers in the city are supportive of this programme, and recognise its merit.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Do you think that’s true Eric? Do you think that the UTC does have the support of head teachers?
ERIC WINSTONE: Well I hope so. I really do hope so. I think it’s a great opportunity. And we’re all in this job for the benefit of young people, and providing them with the best opportunities that we can.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So Eric, if you were still a head teacher, would you recommend the UTC to your pupils?
ERIC WINSTONE: Well I would certainly make sure that they knew what the offer was, and that they had an alternative, and they had the information where they could make those choices.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Eric, thank you very much for your time this morning. Eric Winstone there, who is the former Head of Ormiston Bushfield Academy in Peterborough. And you also heard there from Dr Alan McMurdo, who is the Principal Designate of the Greater Peterborough University Technical College. And he will be getting the keys to the new buildings today.