Build a bridge to business

9th March 2018 at 00:00
Traditional secondary schools could boost their students’ career prospects and support their local economies by following in the footsteps of UTCs and forging lasting links with Stem-related industries, writes Dan Cundy

Schools don’t really understand much about the labour market – I certainly didn’t in my previous roles. I didn’t understand the London economy very well. I didn’t understand projections into the future about the demand for technical and soft skills or the sectors experiencing huge difficulties recruiting talent.

However, if you’re leading a school and turning out generations of young people, it’s absolutely critical to have a sophisticated level of understanding of this and to be able to give credible, unbiased advice.

University technical colleges (UTCs) are perhaps fortunate that we have business connections in our DNA. At the moment, our connections are telling us that there is a major problem.

Companies we talk to struggle to find motivated people with solid technical grounding who can do the high-end technical jobs of the future. In 2015, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills highlighted the fact that there were 209,000 job vacancies owing to skills shortages. A House of Commons Digital Skills enquiry the following June found that we needed 745,000 additional workers with digital skills. This skills gap is growing each year.

At South Bank UTC, in London, we specialise in engineering. From a sector perspective, there is a huge skills gap.

There is a shortage of young people going into engineering, which, to me, seems bonkers because there are lots of jobs. It’s an engaging area, it has social and environmental benefits, it pays well and there is a big issue around diversity and gender balance, giving opportunities to under-represented groups. In the NHS, for example, there are loads of vacancies in engineering and technical services-type roles that underpin so many of the frontline services in hospitals.

So, from an employer’s perspective, there is a huge need and from a school leader’s perspective there is a massive opportunity. But the education system is just not aligning with this reality.

For traditional secondary schools, the curriculum is a major challenge because school leaders are always going to be driven by performance tables and Ofsted. How can they square that with doing more to make students employable, fill skills gaps and build better connections with businesses?

We started from scratch

We’re lucky because, along with our sponsors – London South Bank University, Skanska UK, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and King’ College Hospital NHS Trusts, among others – we had the opportunity to start our school from scratch in 2016. As a result, we were not bound by the “we’ve always done it this way” kind of thinking that often constrains schools.

The whole point for our sponsors and partners is that ordinary schools don’t give them what they need, so we should innovate and do something tailored to the needs of the economy. That ought not to be considered innovative, but it is in England.

So how do we work with businesses and what advice do I have for schools in creating meaningful business connections?

Let’s take our model first. All of our sponsors have been engaged with us at a governance level from the outset, so they have a stake in our success, and I think that’s part of the secret sauce for us.

They’re involved in development decisions around the design and funding of buildings, equipment and so on, which means I have more profound, deeper and more permanent employer engagement than most schools do. Because our sponsors are on our governing bodies, they can steer us and the curriculum towards the subjects that really matter. There’s now a big emphasis on cyber security and virtual/augmented reality, for example.

Just as importantly, it means I have a black book that is already filled with engaged organisations that I can approach and say, “We’re looking to develop a project in x subject – what could be our talking point around this and where could we go with it?”

What we try to focus on with our partners is experience of the workplace, with the development of technical skills and employability, so we have in-house projects that have industry input to supplement our academic curriculum.

‘Hospital of the future’

One of the best examples of this was a project our Year 12s worked on last year with Skanska. The organisation was rebuilding Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), with an effective brief “to make sick children get better quicker”. We had 16 engineers from Skanska, as well as from the company’s supply chain and from the hospital, come in to talk to our students about the building programme and its technology.

Then we gave our students a project to design the “hospital ward of the future” for GOSH. The output – rather than writing an essay or sitting an exam – was that the students would go in their teams to Skanska HQ and pitch computer-aided design models and presentations in a Dragon’s Den style to GOSH and senior Skanska staff.

In some ways, it was a difficult exercise for the Skanska representatives because this was a project with challenges they had already engaged with and solved. They had pitched, designed and built the hospital of the future, so as far as they were concerned, they knew the answers and the best way to approach the task, although they were careful not to give too many of the “answers” away to the students.

The Skanska team was surprised at the creativity, control and understanding our students demonstrated. For instance, students came up with the idea of a smartwatch for nurses, so that when a nurse approaches a hospital bed, contextualised information about the patient flashes up on the wearable device. It was a brilliant idea and Skanska was interested in exploring how it could be developed.

As an initial project for Year 12s, who were not long out of Year 11, this was a radical departure from what they were used to because they were working with professionals in an authentic context, with quite high stakes, and it was cross-subject – there was engineering, maths and computer science. In addition, students had to quickly learn how to work within Skanska’s corporate culture and develop their own research, teamwork, project management and presentation skills – no mean feat.

We’ve done other smaller projects, too. We had a Skanska takeover day at the UTC. There were 75 professionals – from board level all the way down – running CV workshops and offering careers advice.

We have also had an air-quality challenge and a technology innovation fair, with commercial drones and a virtual reality kit.

And we run a range of masterclasses and workshops with Skanska and have a team of graduates attached to the UTC for the year to help engage students. Our UTC holds many activities with our sponsors and partners. Some might include entire cohorts working on a project for six weeks, while others are small, so it might just be a class working on something for an afternoon.

We have taught elements of sustainable engineering by building bamboo “fixie” (fixed gear) bikes with the Bamboo Bicycle Club. We have worked on customising wheelchairs with King’s College Hospital NHS Trust. We have worked with Fujitsu on a project to harness the power of wearable technology on construction sites.

Authenticity is key

The golden thread throughout all of these projects is authenticity. All of the work our students undertake is real in some way, and I think that helps us to drive engagement and potentially to raise achievement through contextualising students’ understanding.

More traditional secondary schools could do this, but it would not be without its difficulties. First, it’s challenging to build the necessary connections at a classroom teacher level – this kind of work needs to be driven by the school’s leadership.

Second, in my experience, a lot of schools go out there and, because they are so time poor, the temptation is to just ask businesses and organisations for stuff – “Can you do this?” and “We would be interested in that”. The types of engagement this approach engenders tend to be superficial, temporary and low-value. To build engagement with businesses, there needs to be a symbiosis. There has to be something in it for them.

You need to have conversations at leadership level about what these businesses do, what their issues are, where their skills shortages are and what the natural interfaces might be that could benefit the school and business. You need to be able to draw down the flexibility to work within their timelines, their corporate culture and their logistical and organisational arrangements.

Third, a key to success is forming personal relationships with businesses. How do you do that? It’s an investment of time. For instance, we know that some UTCs arrange breakfast briefings with local business leaders. You can use this as an opportunity to give a briefing about your school’s curriculum and the types of students you’re turning out. Or you can just listen to what these local business leaders have to say and consider what you can work on together.

We have found that being involved in the local business improvement district pays dividends, and it is easy for schools to make a valuable contribution, for example by offering the use of premises and equipment, or by facilitating training.

I am not saying this will be easy. At South Bank UTC, we invest considerable time and resources in nurturing our relationships with businesses and universities.

Ultimately, this is all about preparing students so that they can thrive in the future economy. That’s a challenge. It is a huge one. But it is also a huge opportunity. I encourage every school to seek out business connections – they can be a real force for good.

Dan Cundy is the principal of South Bank Engineering UTC in London

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