Peterborough students left in limbo after college opening is cancelled

utc07:08 Tuesday 24th March 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Twelve million pounds has been invested. Students have applied for the courses. But now with six months to go, the opening of Peterborough’s University Technical College is being delayed by twelve months. The UTC Trust Board says it’s to” give more certainty to prospective students”, but with only forty applications in the first place, questions are being raised about how well it’s been publicised, and how effective consultation has been. Let’s talk now to Dr Alan McMurdo, who is the Principal Designate of the Greater Peterborough University Technical College. Explain first of all Dr McMurdo just what a university technical college is. It’s not a description that everyone will be familiar with.

ALAN MCMURDO: Yes morning Dotty. Thanks very much. A university technical college, and there are about thirty now across the country, specialises in a technical education. So if you want a pure academic education you can stay at school. If you want a vocational programme you can go to places like Peterborough Regional College. But what we haven’t got in England at the moment to any great extent is technical education. And I use the phrase, if you like learning with your head and your hands, then that’s around technical education. And we’ve got a unique offer in Peterborough, specialising in engineering and the built environment.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. Except now of course that was due to open this September. It’s now been delayed by a year. What’s happened? This is a mess, isn’t it?
ALAN MCMURDO: Well it’s not quite a mess. We were aware that we were unable to tell the applicants and confirm with the applicants their place, and so we’ve sought to put some clarity into the picture, because the last thing we want to do is to mess young people around. And it could have been May or early June before we were able to give them that clarity about whether we were opening or not. Going into the General Election period, great uncertainty all round. And what we wanted to do was put youngsters first, and actually enable them to plan. So yes we are disappointed. A number of them are very disappointed. But at the end of the day at least now they can plan with some certainty what it is they’re going to be doing next year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You did only have forty applicants. That’s not a huge intake for a year, is it? Did you drop the ball a bit on getting applicants in?
ALAN MCMURDO: No absolutely. I started on this project on 1st January, and since then applications have more than doubled. And we were picking up ground, and the trajectory for applications was actually very healthy.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How many would you hope to have in a year?
ALAN MCMURDO: Well we were hoping to get to eighty to open. When we’re eventually full we’ll have a hundred in years ten and eleven, and a hundred and fifty in each year group in the sixth form. But we were on trajectory for eighty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: I’m still not convinced that you actually explained why it’s been delayed until next year. Is it a problem with the building? Is it because you have so few applicants?
ALAN MCMURDO: No, the build is fine, and it’s scheduled to be finished in the middle of August, and everyone’s working really hard on the building and fitting it out. The fundamental issue is that with a period of uncertainty we are unable to be clear to young people ..
DOTTY MCLEOD: But why have you got that period of uncertainty Alan?
ALAN MCMURDO: Well you and I both know what’s happening in May. The civil service basically has a period of purdah, and we needed to negotiate with the DfE what was happening in terms of our opening. All new schools have a thing called a ‘readiness to open’ meeting. That is usually in May or June preceding the opening, and there’s various checks.
DOTTY MCLEOD: But why wasn’t all of this sorted out well before the election then?
ALAN MCMURDO: Yes. Good question.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And do you know the answer?
ALAN MCMURDO: I don’t. No. If I did I’d tell you. Yes.
ALAN MCMURDO: What we’re trying to do ..
DOTTY MCLEOD: So who should we ask Alan?
ALAN MCMURDO: I don’t know. But what we’re trying to do, and the Trust Board for Peterborough UTC, is actually to enable young people .. we’re putting young people first, and enabling them to plan their next year’s study with some certainty. And as an educationalist, I think that’s exactly the right tactic.
DOTTY MCLEOD: It sounds like it’s been a complete dog’s dinner. Why were you brought in to this project Dr McMurdo?
ALAN MCMURDO: It’s not a dog’s dinner or indeed a dog’s breakfast.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You say yourself you don’t know why these issues weren’t sorted out before the election, so that you can open on time. So that sounds like a bit of a dog’s breakfast to me.
ALAN MCMURDO: As I say the issue is we’re recruiting people onto unique programmes. A number of youngsters have already seen what the offer is at Peterborough UTC, and they’ve recognised the value of it. We are disappointed that we’re not going to be open this September, but we have acted in the best interests of young people to enable them to plan what is an extremely important decision for where they carry out their year ten studies or their year twelve studies.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So it’s absolutely not because you didn’t have enough applicants who were interested.
ALAN MCMURDO: It’s absolutely not because of that. No.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. Are you the right person to be leading this Dr McMurdo?
ALAN MCMURDO: Well I’d like to think so, and certainly my track record would support the fact that I am leading this project.
DOTTY MCLEOD: We have heard from some people in Peterborough who say that this whole project hasn’t really been well publicised enough, that schools haven’t been consulted with properly, that not enough has been done to interest young people, to offer them this opportunity. What do you say to that?
ALAN MCMURDO: Yes. I think that’s a fair comment Dotty actually. And certainly as I say one of the things we’ve been doing since 1st January since I’ve been on the project is working really hard with schools in the city and in the broader region, working hard with those to actually explain what we’re up to and how we’re different, and why we’re a unique part of the offer in the city of Peterborough. And I think it is fair comment that previously not enough of that awareness raising had been done. So I take that as a fair comment.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Dr Alan McMurdo there, the Principal Designate of the Great Peterborough University Technical College.



DOTTY MCLEOD: Let’s continue talking about this then. The Great Peterborough University Technical College was due to open this September. It’s a sort of specialist vocational flash? academic college, with a specialism in engineering particularly, based in Peterborough. The opening has now been delayed until next year. Forty students who had applied for courses will be disappointed. And my next guest was disappointed as well to hear about the delay in this project. Lisa Forbes the Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Peterborough. Now Lisa, you were at a meeting, an all-party policy meeting, about this UTC just a few weeks ago, and you say that there was no indication of a delay then. What did you think when you heard about this?
LISA FORBES: Yes there was no indication of delay, which is why I was really shocked when I heard about it. It was presented to us about three weeks ago at an all-party policy meeting at the Town Hall. All the councillors assembled to hear about this great new offer for students in Peterborough. And we were all excited by it. It seemed like it was all on track. And so yes, it was a shock to read that, especially as only on Friday I read in the Peterborough Telegraph that it was still on track to open in September, and that forty youngsters had already applied, and there were lots more applications coming in. So to hear on Monday just three days later that it’s now being delayed for a year was a very big shock.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. Do you understand why this delay is apparently caused by the General Election coming up?
LISA FORBES: Not really. No. I do understand all about purdah, but I think my primary concern at the moment would be for the forty students that have applied, and now have no place to go this year. There’s talk of support and guidance, but that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be of much use to those students. My own daughter who is studying for GSCEs at the moment has received confirmation that she’ll be starting sixth form in September, so children are already getting their offers for September. So I would be really concerned about what’s going to happen to these students, and whether they’ll be receiving any sort of compensation. And actually they need more than just support and guidance. They need actual firm offers of somewhere to go in September.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. We should maybe just explain purdah. It’s a term that we sometimes hear in the media, and in politics as well. It essentially the period around a General Election or any kind of election, where civil servants aren’t allowed to promote the work of politicians. But I have to say I’m baffled as to what that has to do with a new college in Peterborough that’s already been planned.
LISA FORBES: It does actually sound like it’s a bit of an excuse. I can’t understand why this should affect students starting their education in September personally. So I can’t really offer you an answer on that one to be fair.
DOTTY MCLEOD: How would you describe this situation?
LISA FORBES: I think it’s awful, especially as I say for the forty students that have applied ,and those that wanted to go there as well. The Labour Party is committed to raising the status of vocational education, because it’s a route to a higher skilled higher paid workforce, and we desperately need that in Peterborough. We’ve got a low skilled low paid workforce at the moment, and we need to raise the wages of people in Peterborough. My son is actually interested in engineering, so he wants to take a vocational education route.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. Lisa, good to talk to you this morning. Thank you for coming on. Lisa Forbes there, who is the Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Peterborough.