To people of a certain age, technical colleges conjure an image of serious young men in brown coats bent over rows of lathes.
Fast-forward forty years and a new generation of colleges for the technically-minded are more likely to look like the innovation suites of high-tech manufacturers.
Such is the vision for more than 30 university technical colleges – or UTCs – which will be springing up across the country over the next few years. Dedicated to offering inquisitive young people the opportunity to stretch themselves in engineering in its broadest sense, the catalyst was a desire to address Britain's dire skills shortage.
Five UTCs – including Staffordshire's highly successful JCB Academy – have already come on stream and this September will see the South West's first new technical college welcome its first cohort of youngsters.
So what is a UTC? And what does it have to offer that a traditional school education doesn't already?
Aware of the enormous cultural hurdle educators need to overcome in order to gain the confidence of prospective students and their parents, UTC Plymouth principal Mary Cox explained that they are a new concept in education, giving 14-19 year olds the opportunity to take a full-time, technically-oriented course of study. Sponsored by universities and supported by industry, they combine a GCSE core curriculum alongside technical disciplines to prepare students for higher education, advanced apprenticeships and work.
"The reality is that British industry requires two million engineers every five years and we currently produce only 125,000 – that's a big gap," said Mrs Cox. "The reason is partly because secondary education has moved to an 'exam machine' approach with the result that many young people lose interest and partly because technical training has had a poor profile in recent years."
Getting this message across to a sceptical public is the biggest challenge facing the UTCs. Why, ask parents and pupils, should we choose an untested model over an ordinary school?
UTC Plymouth project manager Brian Warren believes the solution is in thinking outside the box. Surveying the Devonport construction site where the new campus will operate from September, he said: "We are aware of the problem: we are trying to sell a product with no building, one member of staff and no provenance. Parents are inevitably wary and ask us if their child has to 'leave school' to attend the UTC. We have to get across the message that this is a school, just a different option to what was previously on offer. No one is going to be disadvantaged by coming here – in fact the opposite is true. And it's our job to convince them."
Not least of the challenges facing the team at UTC Plymouth is to overturn the negative reputation of the former occupant of the site. Until 2009, it was home to Parkside Community College, which had the dubious honour of being named Britain's worst-achieving secondary school. With only one in 20 pupils gaining five A-C grades, it was shut down. The UTC has no link whatsoever with Parkside, but all concerned are aware that "mud sticks".
UTC Plymouth has rigour embedded in its DNA, said Mrs Cox, adding that for those students who are prepared to work hard and to be fully committed, the rewards will be enormous.
"Studying at a UTC is not for everyone, of course," said Mrs Cox, who is happy to hold one-to-one clinics for potential students. "But all parents know when their child is suited to a particular type of learning and once they see that and find it is available they will do everything to help them achieve it."
UTC Plymouth has been funded to the tune of £8m from the Department for Education and was established in partnership with Plymouth University, City College Plymouth and Plymouth City Council, alongside a host of city employers including Babcock Marine and Princess Yachts. It is being built by BAM Construction. Studying there will be significantly different from other secondary schools. Firstly, students will look different: a suit and tie is something of a departure from the sweatshirts and hoodies of many secondaries. The working day is also longer, running from 8.30am to 5.30pm five days a week. The age range of students – who will be drawn from a radius of 45km either side of the Tamar – will be 14 to 19.
Mrs Cox explained the reason for starting them at Year 9 – rather than Year 7 or Year 12 – is because educationalists believe 11 is too young to begin a specialist course. By the same token, students who wait until they are 16 to specialise are in danger of missing out on two valuable years of training.
A cross-party initiative led by former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker, created the UTC model after extensive research both in the UK and abroad. Working with universities and businesses, the ultimate goal was to address the UK's skills shortage and to offer a desperately needed alternative to the established school system.
The Plymouth college – which will boast a 1:6 teacher to student ratio – will be structured not with timetables and tutor groups, but with "agendas" and "working companies".
Students, up to a maximum of 650 in the coming years, will be taught the principles of the business world. All will have their own tablet device and be offered a more adult way of taking control and managing their learning. There is no admission criteria and no fees.
With 3D printers, 3D scanners, CNC lathes and experience of pneumatics and precision measuring, they will have access to the cutting-edge tools of engineering. At the end of each day the young men and women will receive 90 minutes of "enrichment and supportive learning", including sport, creative activities and teamwork, plus time to go back through assignments and assessments with teachers, eliminating the need for any homework.
"Universities are guaranteeing the academic support of UTCs – which was sometimes lacking in technical colleges in the past," said Mr Warren, who is a Plymothian with a Royal Navy background. "These new colleges are therefore going to be for technically-minded individuals who are real high fliers."
Mary Cox added: "If I had to describe a 'typical' UTC Plymouth student it would be a boy or girl who wants to know 'why?' They will be genuinely fascinated by how things work and desperate to find out more. Crucially, they can see above the parapet and have the foresight to recognise that receiving their education here will give them a competitive edge."
The next open day for potential students and their parents will be held at City College Plymouth at 5.45pm until 7pm on Tuesday February 26. For more information, visit: www.utcplymouth.org