The debate stills rumbles on in the corridors of Holyrood and in every school in Scotland: should education be technical and skills-based, or academic and knowledge-based?
It can and should be both – and Scotland’s teachers are proving it. Take a much-misunderstood sector, construction: the general perception of it in schools is that of a low-achievement career destination, even a last resort for students whose attainment levels are low. This is totally at odds with real life. The consequences have been dire for the supply of skills into what is a truly dynamic, creative digital sector, encompassing design and engineering, surveying and management, law and finance.
It’s a world of technology, gamification and automation, with profound social, economic and environmental effects on the entire planet. Secondary school programmes that give construction, engineering and other “vocational” subjects the technical and academic respect they deserve are long overdue, and that is the aim of Design…Engineer…Construct! (DEC), our applied, project-based science, technology, engineering and maths programme.
It is in programmes such as this that Scotland’s Developing the Young Workforce policy will come to life. That, of course, resulted from a 2014 report by Sir Ian Wood, whose vast experience of the North Sea oil and gas sector told him that the key to improving youth employment was to put vocational education on a par with “academic” study.
Any subject that steers young people towards certain sectors that may be relatively unfamiliar in schools requires specialist teacher training and support, and it has been encouraging to witness the incredible progress that teachers can make, given the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. Every year, we see student portfolios and standards of work that are truly outstanding, which can only come from excellent, stimulating classroom teaching backed up by bespoke industrial support in the classroom. It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm of teachers for our sector.
Every DEC school aims to be “adopted” by an industry sponsor. Drummond Community High School in Edinburgh, for example, was adopted by digital engineering and main contractor Laing O’Rourke, and has worked closely with HeriotWatt University. Evaluation has found “evidential, replicable, measurable value” for all parties involved in this arrangement.
In the words of Andrew Wolstenholme, a civil engineer who was until recently boss of Crossrail and served as co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council, “Engineering is not just a set of theoretical processes, it’s taking someone’s vision and delivering it into something that is going to benefit society.” Imagine that on your students’ CVs: “I benefited society.”
Alison Watson is chief executive of Class of Your Own and creator of Design…Engineer…Construct!, which encourages young talent into the digital built-environment sector