The Cambridge school that put engineering on the curriculum for 7-year-olds

Helen Ward

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A Cambridege prep school has taken the unususal step of introducing lessons in engineering for all students aged 7 to 13. 

Nigel Helliwell, headteacher of St Faith’s prep school, said he identified the benefits of pupils learning to apply their maths and science knowledge to solving problems at an after-school club.

“We realised engineering was right up there,” he said. “The whole point [of the subject] is that you are not telling the children how to solve a problem. That’s what makes it different from other subjects. You tell them what you want to achieve and they come up with the ideas.

“We want to spur children to do engineering. But, even if they don’t go on to be engineers, being creative and working in teams is highly relevant for many jobs.”

Engineering is still a relatively rare subject in secondary schools, let alone primaries, but its popularity is rising. In 2015 there were 6,909 GCSE entries for engineering – up from 5,027 in 2014. This 37 per cent rise was the second largest rise in entries of any subject, after computing.

But the 2015 Engineering UK report, put together by several education and engineering groups, says that to meet the future UK demand for engineers, the number of engineering graduates needs to double and for this to happen more school-age students must be inspired to study the subject.

At St Faith’s one-hour weekly lessons are taught in Years 3 and 4 by class teachers and in Years 5 to 8 by engineering teacher Susan Passmore, who has an engineering degree and has previously worked as a secondary science teacher.

The after-school club began by taking part in a project run by Greenpower Education Trust, an engineering education charity, in which schools are given kit cars to build and then race. The following year, the after-school club was used to pilot the new curriculum, before Mr Helliwell decided to make engineering part of the school curriculum at the start if this academic year.

The school's curriculum was put together by Mr Helliwell, with Alison Price, head of science, Margaret White, director of studies, and Ms Passmore. They were also advised by Cambridge University engineering department and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“We contacted external companies – there are a lot of engineering companies in Cambridge – and they all gave us ideas. It was quite clear it was the right thing to do. We were pushing against an open door. These companies are tearing their hair out trying to find qualified engineers so when we rung up and explained that we wanted to develop engineering in school they fell over themselves to help,” said Mr Helliwell.

The lessons are arranged in termly projects and have replaced design and technology, some of which has now been incorporated into art and design.

For example, in Year 4 children are asked to design a safety light for walkers and in Year 6, they are asked to build and programme a robot which can help to perform a task to help an elderly relative.

The pupils work in teams and they are assessed not only on how well they solve the task but also how well they work as a team – each project must incorporate ideas from every team member.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said she was delighted that St Faith’s has introduced engineering into the curriculum. “It is a great initiative and can enable the girls and boys to apply the things they learn in science, maths and computing in really exciting, creative ways,” she said.

For more on this story – and other schools experimenting with new curriculum approaches – see this week’s TES magazine, or click here (free to subscribers). This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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