Two years with the UTCs

It has been just over two years actually since I joined Lord Baker and his team at the Baker Dearing Trust (BDT).  Why join? Well these new schools , Universtity Technical Colleges, must be our best hope to establish a highly valued, highly regarded and much needed technical pathway in this country.  Business and industry should not be sourcing engineers and technicians from the likes of Germany.  So we aim high: to create a new family of schools,  a unique educational environment for 14-18 year olds where universities, employers and teachers come together.

Are we succeeding?  Yes steadily, slowly the UTCs are being recognised.  Firms are queuing up to be involved,  they need the employee supply chain.  So we have the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, Network Rail, and hundreds of others both big brands and smaller local enterprise.  Universities are on board, less clear at first as to their benefits but now recognised, they give the academic credentials and HE access to the UTC courses.  Of course they benefit as do young people who take a more practically based route to academic success. We have UCL, South Bank, Bolton and many others across the country.

Each UTC has employers and a university committed to collaboration with the College( UTCs are schools as defined by Ofsted). These external partners commit staff time to work with the teachers to produce project based courses.  They solve real issues like Reading UTC students designing the station or Elstree UTC students providing technical expertise to present the MOBO awards.  In addition the core curriculum is delivered at GCSE and A Level Level 2 and 3 courses.  Students go on to university,  higher apprenticeships, jobs.  The target for every UTC which has so far been delivered is No NEETs.  Now two years on we have 30 open UTCs, a further 30 agreed for opening  between 2015-17. 

There are issues and challenges of course.  Entry at 14 is unusual, a risk for parents, a threat to local school rolls. So numbers are slow to rise although two years on and there are proven exam and destination results to publish.   There have been casualties and a minority of Colleges have not succeeded but the vast majority are here to stay.  No young people have been disadvantaged by choosing the UTC route this has been a priority for BDT.  The range of specialisms in UTCs is huge across construction, health, performing arts and more.   Those Colleges specialising in manufacturing find it hard to recruit girls.  Girls into engineering is a national challenge still to be won.  It must start in the primary schools.  Girls are not wooed by hard hats and scaffolding but guess what – engineers do very little of that and lots of design, maths, communication, team building.  Girls are great at these skills. 

I am sorry to leave the UTC programme now but I will stay in touch.  It has been a most rewarding journey travelling with them.  It’s been a privilege to work closely with so many as staff and students take up the challenge.  Make no mistake this initiative us gaining ground and it is very important that it’s place in our education provision is recognised and valued.  It must be here to stay.

Posted in Education

Read the small print

Details can be irritating,  it is so much easier to read the headlines.  This means that full understanding is never achieved whether it be over a new washing machine or a new policy.  The latter of course is much more public and lack of true understanding leads to generalisations and then misconceptions.  I am thinking of two current examples,  firstly about Universtity Technical Colleges (UTCs) and secondly about appointing qualified teachers.

UTCs are new schools for 14-18 year olds,  there are 57 open or approved to open across England.  They are the brainchild of Lord Baker who envisages 163 (see TES last week) to gain parity with the number of grammar schools which certainly seems a neat and equitable solution to meeting specific needs.  However, concern is often vehemently expressed that 14 is too early to specialise and that local schools will be denuded of year 10 students.  They fail to read the small print.

UTCs are schools first and foremost offering a core curriculum of maths, English, sciences, IT, languages,  humanities, sport and extra curriculr opportunities.  The students do work with their chosen employers and university but this is possible with the longer day (8.30-5) 40 weeks a year.  Students are then able to move after GCSE in the UTC to an academic A level pathway or a more vocational pathway or something in between.  Specialisation does not limit them.  Many will go into STEM careers but not all and none will be NEETs.

Secondly, UTCs are sub regional and so they are designed to recruit from a wide geographic area and thus not adversely affect any one local school.  If there are 3000 odd secondary schools in the country and UTCs will number at most 163 with only 600 students per college,  then it is hard to see how this tiny proportion, offering something slightly different for those young people that would benefit from a more project based curriculum, can be a problem.

As for the promise from the Opposition and indeed the LibDems that only qualified teachers will be allowed to teach in state schools.  Well it sounds obvious,  who would want an unqualified person teaching our children.  However what do these terms mean in the small print?  Unqualified teacher means a teacher with a university degree in their subject or another recognised qualification.  Many such are teaching successfully in our world acclaimed independent schools.  It just means they do not have a specific teaching qualification.  Now most heads I know will indeed ensure that if they appoint an unqualified teacher who as we have established has a degree,  then they will be put on a course that enables them to have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) while still having started work.  I see this is now the line of Tristram Hunt. So when you read the small print theirs is not a big new policy to safeguard standards in our schools but the stus quo.  The generalisation sounds good though!



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Women Engineers

It was inspiring to read at the weekend about Professor Dame Anne Dowling’s achievements as an engineer.  Less inspiring to see she is the first woman to be appointed as President of the Royal Academy of Engineers but at least that taboo is now broken if not before time.   Where are all the female engineers who should have been competing with the men for such a prize over the years?

Sadly we know that not only is there a shortage of highly qualified engineers in this country but there is a serious shortage of women in the profession.  Let us hope that Professor Dowling inspires more young girls to take up engineering as a career.  She is certainly a brilliant role model.  Her piece written in 2011 said we could not afford to miss out on lots of talented girls.  This is even more true now in 2014.

The problem is clear in microcosm in my work with University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Those specialising in engineering have to date small percentages of girls applying aged 14. They are addressing the issue in a variety of ways: female only open days, female role models as speakers such as Professor Dowling, female role models from their existing cohorts of students and staff presenting at events.  They are going into local schools including primary schools to inspire all young people with the possibilities engineering offers as a career.  They work with a variety of committed and excellent  organisations all beginning with W and including  WISE,  WES,  WiSET.  The problem seems to be perception – that it is a boys’ career,  that it is to do with things not people and teams,  that you are outdoors mainly wearing a hard hat.  This is not true.  Parents too need exposure to the possibilities for their daughters offered by a degree in engineering.

I read in the Times yesterday that there is a chronic oversupply of law graduates who now cannot find positions.  What a pity they did not realise that opportunities abound in the field of engineering for all young people and at least explore that option.  Let us hope future generations do so and a good place to start is by visiting a UTC nearby.




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The London Academy of Excellence (LAE)

I read with real delight about the amazing achievements of the first students graduating from this newly formed Sixth Form College.  Large numbers have qualified for Russell Group universities including Oxbridge. These are young people from Newham, one of our most deprived boroughs,  where this kind of success was hitherto unheard.

It has undoubtedly been achieved by assiduous students inspired by excellent teaching.  The College unashamedly focuses on traditional academic subjects. Demand for places is massively oversubscribed.

LAE is the ultimate, for now, realisation of two visionary heads.  Richard Cairns of Brighton College and Joan Deslandes of Kingsford Community School.  It all began with a fortunate few Kingsford sudents moving to post 16 places at Brighton.  I recall hearing them speak so eloquently of their experience.  Now thanks to the Free School initiative,  Richard and Joan were able to expand the opportunity to hundreds of young people by opening a sixth form that combined the best of Kingsford and Brighton right on their Newham doorstep.

The key to the whole thing was collaboration between a state and an independent school.  Now LAE collaborates with a group of some 10 independent schools.  Each contributes to their strength.  The results are there for all to see.

Forest School in East London  where I am a governor has contributed to the teaching of English and UCAS  preparation. Forest is in no doubt that that they have benefitted equally from the partnership.

It is clearly a win win formula.  Let us see more such collaborations between state and independent schools committed to equality of opportunity and mutual benefit.

Congratulations once again to the first LAE Year 13 cohort and to their teachers and indeed to Richard and Joan for their sustained commitment.


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Sidwell Company CCF

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people and so when Gordon Brown, the then PM said he would fund five new cadet forces in state schools, I was the first to apply. Thus Sidwell Company CCF was born at Haberdashers’ Academy Federation in Lewisham, SE London.  Continue reading
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New Year Resolutions and Technology

Apparently the most common resolutions are related to living healthier lives. I am no exception in that nor I suspect in failing spectacularly ever to achieve them. However this year I have the Up Band to ensure success. Technology has come to my rescue.
Now I am no techno whizz so when one Christmas present revealed a wristband with instructions I felt waves of panic and despair. However, two weeks on and thanks to my Up band I am still on track with the healthier lifestyle resolution. This is how it works for those not familiar with this small and knowing device.
Choose aspects of lifestyle you wish to improve upon. Mine are to walk more daily and sleep longer and better. Next set your goals: for me 10000 steps daily and 6 hrs deep sleep a night. Charge up the band in your phone socket; download the Up app on your iPhone and pop the bracelet on your wrist. You have a choice of colours. It has a day or night setting. Now you are being monitored. It makes anyone – especially those competitive souls like me – want to improve daily. Amazingly I can also see how others with a band who are named in my team are doing. I was not happy to see that my 10,000 steps might be good but they had achieved 20,000!
But back to me and my goals. Thus far stepwise my Up has revealed underachievement ranging between 6000-8000 which I blame squarely on the festive period. Today with fresh resolve I even walked to the tube in pouring rain to improve my tally: guess what, 10,767 steps recorded. I have done better with sleep, averaging 8 hours to my great surprise, except of course on New Year’s Eve which showed a paltry 4!
Not content with sheer overall numbers of steps or hours, my band knows how well I have slept and how many steps taken consecutively. These things are important for good health.
Today I have surpassed both my daily goals and my resolutions are on track. An added bonus is to have mastered the art of the band to boot!
Up with resolutions or rather Up with technology has become my mantra.

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Learning is for life

This Christmas I was lucky enough to join my son and daughter-in-law for a skiing holiday in Austria. Well the plan was for them it was skiing and for me time to ponder, relax, drink coffee and enjoy the wonderful views.
However, I did in fact forgo the coffee for some of the time and venture into the relative unknown. I tried cross country skiing. Many years ago I had, like so many young teachers, led ski trips but those were downhill. I had only once briefly dallied with cross country. But not to be outdone in learning new skills (as advocated in many an assembly) I hired boots and skis and had a go. I couldn’t have been more pleased nor rewarded.
It wasn’t easy. In learning this new skill I had to first master such elementary things it was almost like being back at primary school such as tying the boot laces, clipping on the skies and putting my hands the right way through the pole loops lest the latter fly away should one fall. Well this small achievement could well have been enough, after all I could stand there on the piste looking the part and feeling at one with the throng. However I did proceed onto the tracks. There I was reminded of the benefit of personal tuition: “it’s just like walking,” she said. Strangely I had to rack my brains to recall that simple skill. “Think and concentrate” I muttered repeatedly holding any number of bits of advice in my head: balance, relax, look up, look down, lean forward, bend your knees… So hard yet so wonderful when for a moment it goes right. Watching those ahead of me was important too: “watch and learn” such a good way to improve. Practice makes perfect or at least competent, I remembered, and so back and forth I went on the practice run. Never mind others were out on more interesting terrain.
Eventually I was ready to challenge myself further going uphill with skis V-shaped; then downhill in a snow plough. It’s hard but simple. I was learning and improving.
In those few days I learnt so much more than just a new skill, wonderful as that was. I was reminded of all the variety of techniques and personal commitment needed to do just that as well as the importance of help from others. “How to learn” – as teachers we must keep on learning if we are to retain our understanding of this complex and vital process and pass it on to our charges.
Learning is most certainly for life in so many ways. Glad I’ve been reminded in the best possible way. What next…

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