UTCs aim to give teenagers the technical expertise they need for apprenticeships

Richard Garner hears about plans for a ground-breaking new college.

Bill Williams is nothing if not honest. "I wasn't a very good engineer," he admits. Now, as a result of the plans he has drawn up for a new University Technical College in east London, he is hopeful that the next generation of youngsters will at least be given the opportunity to train to overcome that hurdle.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are a new breed of school-cum-college concentrating on providing 14- to 19-year-olds with the kind of technical expertise they will need to take advantage of apprenticeships in tomorrow's world. In some cases, they may even go on to higher education.

Mr Williams is head of the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (CEME) in Dagenham, a charity launched in 2003 that provides training opportunities for a vast array of businesses and employers from the local area. The local AA uses it to train its operatives to repair new makes of cars, and Ford, one of the biggest employers in the neighbourhood, sends its employees to be trained there.

"Around 3,000 kids from around here – from local schools – have come to our engineering centre," says Mr Williams.

Dagenham seems an ideal location for a new UTC – the breed of educational establishments being championed by former Education Secretary Kenneth (now Lord) Baker as the answer to the UK's appalling record in training youngsters for a vocational future.

The plan is to focus on engineering and provide 650 places within five years. Depending on the swiftness of the Government's education programme, the UTC will either open in September 2013 or 2014. Most of the youngsters will come from the Havering or Barking and the Dagenham area, although the neighbouring borough of Newham, one of the most deprived in the country, has also been in touch, anxious that its youngsters should not miss out.

The UTC has impressive sponsors lined up to back the project: Ford, obviously, who take on 40 to 60 apprentices a year locally; Network Rail, who need trained personnel for years to come to develop the Crossrail links; and the Prospect Learning Foundation, a charity that runs a similar school-cum-college in Southend, Essex, and has the links with small firms that will be essential to the proposed UTC. It will be called the East London University Technical College, or Elutec.

CEME is also planning to build an 80-bedroomed hotel on its site, which can be used, if the UTC project gets the go-ahead, to train youngsters for the catering and leisure industry.

In addition, CEME is in partnership with University College London – a member of the Russell Group of universities, which represents 24 of the country's most research-intensive higher education institutions. And through UCL's links with Loughborough University, CEME has another important link. "It's not because they [UCL] want the students," says Mr Williams, "because they are already oversubscribed and recruit heavily from overseas." It is, he believes, because the head of UCL's engineering department, Professor Anthony Finkelstein, did an apprenticeship in east London himself and has a passion for the project.

UCL will offer bursaries to the brightest and most talented students to emerge from Elutec to go on and study with them. The ethos at the college will be very different to that of a secondary school. It will operate from 8.30am until 5pm. Pupils will wear business suits while they are in the classroom and change into practical clothing when they are in the workshop.

"As a result of the extra hours, they will get an extra year's learning here compared to the average secondary school," says Mr Williams.

In addition, they will not have to do any homework – there will be time enough to factor in extra work outside classroom teaching within school hours, mirroring the kind of experience the youngsters will face when they enter the world of employment.

Mr Williams is in no doubt of the need for UTCs. Schools, he believes, cannot offer youngsters the kind of hands-on experience of engineering that they will need once they leave full-time education. As a result, universities are having to lay on practical guidance for students who start studying engineering with them, who may not have even come into contact with a lathe before.

Some firms are having to scrap expansion plans because they cannot recruit enough trained staff to carry them out. "There are more engineers graduating in India every year for the last eight years than in the whole of Europe," Mr Williams says.

"We'd like to train people who will know how to behave in an engineering workshop and how to behave in a manufacturing environment. We can teach them to weld and we can train them for most businesses – what they can't do in schools because they haven't got the time and patience to work with pupils who haven't got the right attitude."

Mr Williams believes the project may receive a boost from the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, chose a factory just down the road – in Basildon, Essex – for the relaunch of the Coalition earlier this month. During their press briefing, they stressed how important the setting up of new apprenticeships would be to solving the country's current unemployment crisis.

Mr Williams' thinking is this: how could the Government possibly turn down a bid supported by leading employers like Ford and Network Rail, as well as a Russell Group university, just a few miles away from where its leaders seemed to be saying their recipe for learning was the key to future success.

So far the UTC project is in its infancy – 18 UTCs have been approved by the Government, not all of which are up and running. Ministers have committed themselves to opening 24 and a decision on the next tranche is expected by the end of month.

Then Mr Williams will find out if the galaxy of sponsors assembled in east London proves irresistible.