Prior to joining UTC Reading, I was a principal of an 11-18 comprehensive school in West London, which is quite unusual for UTC principals.
As a result, I do understand some traditional schools’ initial misconceptions about university technical colleges (UTCs).
So, let me start by clearing up exactly what we do: UTCs have a different approach to learning. Parents and students have chosen to come to us because of that. We aim to teach the curriculum in a way businesses are saying it should be taught, so that we can fill the skills gaps.
While, initially, schools were suspicious of this approach, more and more are realising that UTCs are part of our educational landscape – and that, for some students, of all abilities, it is the right choice for them to flourish.
This is important: we are not a threat to other schools – quite the contrary.
And for schools wishing to embrace science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), we are actually a ready and willing collaborator.
I’m currently executive principal at UTCs in Reading, Swindon and Heathrow. Our principle has very much been about building relationships with other principals in those areas.
Take the example of Reading. We established a local Stem hub as soon as the UTC opened. We invited all of our industry partners along to the hub, and we invited all of the primary and secondary schools in Reading as well.
That’s because what we were hearing from our industry partners was: “We want to work with other schools and not just you. We will be able to do more intensive work with you, but we want to do other outreach, too – we don’t want to exclusively work with a UTC”.
Firms find it difficult
Some of these firms were finding it difficult to get into primary and secondary schools because it can take some time to get relationships off the ground. At the same time, I was also hearing that local primary and secondary schools wanted to work with industry, but the way this was organised needed to be right; it needed to be arranged properly and fit in with the curriculum.
Hence the Stem hub, so industry and schools could come together and we could act as the facilitator. It took a while for some schools to understand what we were doing and why. Initially, it was mostly the primary schools that got involved in the Stem hub. We also found that grammar and independent schools were happy to work with us. But, more recently, we have seen an increasing number of secondary schools in the area come on board.
Through the Stem hub, we’ve put on some bespoke activities with our industry partners. Many of these have been aimed at primary schools because we think we need to get youngsters to think more about engineering and technology and we can plant the seed of pursuing a career in a Stem-related industry. This age group is especially important in gaining girls’ interest in Stem careers.
One of the activities we run is called Children and the Chocolate Factory, and it is organised by three of our industry partners: Peter Brett Associates, Thames Water and Kier Construction. As part of this programme, we run four workshops a year, with 60 10-year-olds attending each one. They are run as half-day events that focus on an engineering or network challenge to solve, as part of a team, which builds children’s teamwork and communications skills.
We also run an Eco Engineers Challenge, which is a six- to seven-week project with local primary schools. We expect around 500 Year 5 pupils to take part in the project, during which children work in teams to design an eco home, using maths, science and design principles. Children work on this as a weekly activity during school time. All equipment, teacher training and lesson plans are provided by UTC Reading.
At the end of the project, students are invited back to our UTC to present their eco homes to a leading industry judging panel made up of experts from avionics firm Rockwell Collins, nuclear defence company AWE, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and Kier Construction. We have received great feedback from the primary schools and students taking part in this programme and it is something we really enjoy running.
We also arrange lots of other initiatives for primary-age children, such as Lego Mindstorms, micro:bit workshops and 3D design workshops.
At secondary school, we have focused more on encouraging young women to get into Stem.
We have set up talks from people who are involved in the profession. The aim is for them to inspire girls at key stage 4 and post-16 to think about Stem careers.
I really think that UTCs should be the hub for brokering this sort of industry support to traditional schools because we are uniquely positioned to help industry and education work together.
Businesses have different expectations and they work to different timescales. So what a UTC can do through its industry partners is help to forge those connections between industry and schools, so that it is set up properly and it’s pitched at the right level.
We urgently need to help foster more of these relationships between schools and industry to help tackle the existing skills gap. This will help our youngsters add value to our economy, and go into the workplace equipped with the right mix of skills and knowledge.
We need to get back to basics; to think about what skills our country needs and then adjust our curriculum in schools to reflect that. So let us help. UTCs can assist local schools in meeting the career aspirations of their students, to provide ideas and information about suitable apprenticeships and to tell them what opportunities are available in the Stem industries.
UTCs are the experts in this area, so let’s keep this dialogue going.
Jo Harper is executive principal of UTC Reading, UTC Swindon and Heathrow Aviation Engineering UTC