Engineered for success

14th October 2011 at 01:00
When a group of boys decided to take on an HNC in mechanical engineering while doing their Highers, a great deal of collaboration, dedication and travel was required. But their hard work has paid off.

It was always going to be a challenge when five pupils from Meldrum Academy in Aberdeenshire opted to study a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in mechanical engineering at college at the same time as doing their Highers in school.

Banff and Buchan College in Fraserburgh is nearly 30 miles from their school in Oldmeldrum. The college lays on free transport for students, but it meant a 6am start for the teenagers to get there on time every Wednesday.

Then there was the academic challenge of taking a college course you'd normally start after Highers, rather than straight after Standard grades. Maths especially was vital and a steep learning curve, but school and college staff worked together to make sure the boys could make the grade.

Now, after two years of exceptionally hard graft, their efforts have paid off in an extraordinary achievement. All five boys were awarded As in their HNC and achieved excellent results in their Highers and Advanced Highers.

This year, four of the boys started university courses in mechanical engineering and one has begun a modern apprenticeship with one of the school's business partners, with possible sponsorship through university further down the line.

The boys' success has delighted teachers, college lecturers and employers, who have collaborated on a long-term learning strategy to prepare young engineers for industry.

Meldrum Academy head Andrew Travis is proud of their achievement. "This form of blended learning, combining traditional lectures, use of ICT and independent study, is the way that they will have to learn in the future," he says. "Coupled with their proven ability in maths and physics, we are sure this will make them highly successful - whether in the workplace or as undergraduates."

The school wanted to give the young engineers an edge - to meet the demands of the north-east's highly competitive energy sectors and to ensure practical competence and theoretical understanding in their chosen field.

"They were very able, keen individuals who lapped it up," says college principal Paul Sherrington. "And I have to say the staff at Meldrum Academy and our engineering staff worked wonders in terms of the additional support they put in place."

The college's Higher Plus programme allows school pupils to join students on existing HNC courses in computing, business and engineering subjects for one day a week over two years.

"Two years ago, these five youngsters decided they'd like to access the HNC in mechanical engineering alongside doing Highers in subjects such as maths, physics, graphic communications and eventually Advanced Highers in the same subjects," says depute head Liz Prosser.

"The school facilitated this by not requiring five subjects in their timetable, because they were obviously accessing a very full programme doing six credits towards an HNC in fifth year and a further six credits in S6. All five completed the entire HNC very successfully by the end of S6 alongside very good school qualifications," says Mrs Prosser.

Not every year produces the same demand for this option - this year just one pupil from Meldrum Academy has opted for an HNC in accountancy at the college. Some years more than 20 pupils from a range of north-east schools have joined Higher Plus at Fraserburgh.

It was hard work for the boys catching up with extra maths needed for engineering and any classes they missed while at college. They were typically doing three Highers in fifth year, but keeping up with older students on the HNC programme was challenging too.

Lloyd Bagley, 18, is now an apprentice mechanical engineer with Fisher Offshore, which provides lifting solutions offshore and is based half a mile or so from Meldrum Academy. If things go according to a plan he would have no problem getting a mortgage in his twenties.

"Last year, one of our most utilised offshore technicians earned pound;80,000. Our offshore technicians can easily make pound;5,000 a month after tax," says Andrea Logan, HR manager at Fisher Offshore in Oldmeldrum where Lloyd works.

His classmates who opted for university will be looking forward to similar rewards when they graduate. For the moment they're delighted to discover familiarity with some of their new university course work, which they've already covered in the HNC.

Lloyd is now on a modest starting salary of pound;15,000, which with twice- yearly increments, will rise to a basic of pound;30,000 after his four-year apprenticeship.

He's delighted the HNC has helped him land this opportunity - there were over 100 applicants for two apprenticeships. But his HNC and his performance during work experience at Fisher Offshore in February secured him the job.

"It was hard, but it's worth it because it got me the job - got me a really good apprenticeship," says Lloyd, in overalls during a work break. "If I'd come straight from school I wouldn't have had all the background knowledge that I had from going to college, which is really helpful."

Now he drives himself to Banff and Buchan College in Fraserburgh three days a week to study performing engineering operations, Level 2. And he's also able to enjoy the college's stunning new facilities - just opened after the first phase of a pound;23 million refurbishment.

After Level 3 of performing engineering operations, he'd normally proceed to a National Certificate then an HNC. But with the HNC already under his belt, Lloyd will have completed his college studies in two-and-a-half years instead of the usual three or four years.

His employer and the college now collaborate on his programme. "What will happen with Lloyd's apprenticeship is that we work very closely with Banff and Buchan College and we tailor the apprenticeship so that what they are learning at college is also underpinned by where they work here," says HR manager Mrs Logan.

"So when Lloyd is working on his fabrication unit at college, he will work in our fabrication workshop, and when he's working on the machining module, he will be in the machine workshop here."

If all goes well, the company could invite him to continue to an HND (Higher National Diploma) with the possibility of progressing into third year of a university course in mechanical engineering or project engineering.

"The company gives full sponsorship of the courses, so it would pay for the HND, pay for the university courses, plus expenses for getting to and from college or university, plus all your books - plus you get paid for going there as well. It's a win-win situation," Mrs Logan says.

It's certainly a treat for parents when someone else foots the bill for your child's higher education and pays them a salary. But instead of an apprenticeship, Lloyd's classmate Alister Gordon, 18, had his heart set on a university place.

As well as getting an A in the HNC, Alister did Highers in maths, physics and computing in fifth year and got two As and a B. In sixth year he did the second part of the HNC and got Advanced Highers in maths and physics at A and B.

"I got an interview for Cambridge that was probably hugely to do with the HNC, I think. The very minimum for Scottish students to go to Cambridge is three As at Advanced Higher and I was only doing two Advanced Highers."

Alister is now in first year at Edinburgh University, studying mechanical engineering with management. When he finishes that in five years, if he doesn't get a job immediately, he'd like to do a PhD. He pays tribute to the group's teachers, with special mention for Mr Farquhar, one of the technical teachers who has an engineering degree: "He was familiar with a lot of the maths and even just essays and stuff on engineering topics."

Another of the boys, Peter Davies, is studying mechanical engineering at Robert Gordon University and hopes to do a masters before working in the oil industry. "We were told about chartered engineering and to do that, you needed to get five years of education at a higher level. That quite appealed to me," says Peter.

Tom Bruce is on the same course as Peter and plans employment in the renewables sector after graduation. And Jamie Booth, 18, has begun a five- year masters in mechanical engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Mum Wendy Booth said Jamie had worked extremely hard over the two years and gained a good grounding in mechanical engineering. "He seemed to get a lot out of it," she said.

The boys developed friendships and helped each other during their last two years at school and some healthy competition may have raised everyone's game.

`It's practical and valuable to employers'

Aberdeenshire's young engineers hit the ground running when they embarked on their two-year HNC at Banff and Buchan College.

The five boys were bright and highly motivated - up for a challenge that wouldn't suit everyone. "It's something that's got to be right for the school, it's got to be right for the parents and it's got to be right for the pupil," says college principal Paul Sherrington.

For employers, a school leaver such as Lloyd Bagley with an HNC is a welcome addition to the workforce. "It's fantastic. And that's the way to go for schools, because it's something that is practical and valuable to employers definitely, over and above Standard grades," says Andrea Logan, his HR manager at Fisher Offshore, a corporate partner with his school.

The company decided to take him on after his work experience. "He came in and worked in every engineering department we have here. We see that as a sort of extended interview and he did very well," says Mrs Logan.

Each department reports back on work experience pupils at the end of the week, so the company has an idea of their attitude and suitability to fit into the organisation: "Just that they are asking the right questions, they're keen and they're here on time," says Mrs Logan.

Picture credit: Simon Price

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