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Gove Wasted Hundreds of Millions on Technical Colleges, Watchdog Finds

A new report by the National Audit Office reveals that 17% of the university technology colleges pioneered by Michael Gove as Education Secretary have closed.

A new report by the National Audit Office reveals that 17% of the university technology colleges pioneered by Michael Gove as Education Secretary have closed.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove has wasted almost £800 million of taxpayers’ money on 58 free school vocational education colleges for tens of thousands of teenagers, a report by the National Audit Office reveals today.

Since the first university technical college opened in 2011, 10 of them have had to close and the remaining colleges are only half full, with 21 of the 48 colleges being rated inadequate or needing improvement by Ofsted, the education regulator.

The report reveals that the Government has spent £792 million on the programme – a variant of the free schools initiative – to be run by trusts and charities for 14-to-19 year olds, encouraging them to opt for apprenticeships and vocational work. Most of the money went on new buildings.

The scheme was enthusiastically set up by Gove when he was Education Secretary. He later admitted that the colleges have failed. In an article in The Times in 2017, he anticipated criticism by the NAO by saying that the project had not worked.

“There comes a point when the evidence has accumulated and the verdict is clear and even the most optimistic of us has to acknowledge that Godot won’t arrive, the base metal won’t turn into gold and the emperor really is in the altogether,” he wrote. 

Now, two years on, the full cost has been revealed in today’s NAO report and bills are still mounting up as more colleges fall into debt because they cannot attract students.

At present, there are 29,934 places available but only 13,572 students have taken them up. Some 4,863 students are taught in colleges given bad ratings by Ofsted. Only two colleges have a full complement of students.

Some 13 existing colleges are in serious financial trouble and 10 have already closed. Another in South Wiltshire is expected to close next year. There is only one new college planned for Doncaster, due to open in 2020.

The 10 closed colleges are in Hackney, Greater Manchester, the Black Country, Tottenham, Harbourside (in Newhaven, east Sussex) Wigan, Daventry, Royal Greenwich, Lancashire and Bedford. Royal Greenwich is to become an academy, at an extra cost of £13 million. The Black Country University Technical College (UTC) was given to Walsall Council, and is being partly used as temporary accommodation, and Lancashire has been gifted to the University of Central Lancashire.

One UTC, South Derbyshire in Burton-on-Trent, never even opened despite the Department for Education spending £8 million on it because it couldn’t recruit enough initial students. Another, Harbourside, received a damning Ofsted report which found that students suffered persistent bullying – some of it racial – at the college before it closed.

Meg Hillier, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said: “UTCs were set up to improve technical education but 17% of UTCs that opened have since closed, leaving hard-pressed local authorities to find alternative places for the students affected. This report provides further evidence as to why the Department for Education is my top department of concern.”

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