This allows students to apply learning in real-world contexts. However, when we opened in 2016, we had just one business engagement manager for hundreds of students. Time for project work had to come out of a jam-packed curriculum, leading to constant negotiations with teaching staff.
We then found out that that Edge Future Learning and the North East LEP were piloting a new education programme in North East England. We were keen to get involved. However, as a career-focused school that has used aspects of project-based learning and already has ties to industry, it was a punt for Edge to work with us – their main focus is on building these capabilities in schools that don’t usually have them. However, we explained to Edge that with their support, we could go from good to outstanding. And so they took a chance on us.
Alongside other schools in North East England, we visited the Academies of Nashville in the US to see the innovative approaches being applied there. We then welcomed two fantastic coaches – Scott and Starr from Ford Next Generation Learning – who were instrumental in the work at Nashville and other communities across the States.
Through facilitated sessions with the senior leadership team, students and over 100 members of the wider community, Scott and Starr helped us develop what is now termed our student leaver profile. Defined by collective community voice, it outlines our objectives for students when they graduate. Crucially, the core skills – such as communication and perseverance – have been carefully defined by the team. If we want to talk to students about communication now, we all know exactly what that means.
Honestly, some colleagues were sceptical at first.
But if we got this right, business engagement would no longer be at the periphery – it would be right at the heart of the curriculum. Study visits to Edge Future Learning leaders, such as School 21 in London and XP School in Doncaster were great for converting sceptics. They showed us how the models we’d seen in Nashville could work in the UK. That was so important for us – this was always as much of a culture change piece as about individual development. Reflecting that, the student leaver profile is now at the centre of everything we do.
Feeding into all this has been Edge’s teacher externship programme. While we already had industry project learning at UTC South Durham, these projects were relatively two-dimensional. They involved industry partners but always stood alone. Externships have allowed teachers to get hands-on industry experience and co-create projects that tie directly into the curriculum. For instance, one of our teachers visited GlaxoSmithKline and used that experience to develop a STEM-driven manufacturing project. While it’s not feasible to send all our teachers on externships, this has become an important embedding piece. Building industry-inspired work directly into the curriculum is much more sustainable.
Our new integrated projects provide students with tangible opportunities to develop their skills. They get to collaborate on challenging tasks. And if they have a great idea, industry partners can take that back to the company. Better yet, because teachers are delivering all this, students see the industry connections much more. This helps create well-rounded young people who are prepared for whatever the world might throw at them.
Cultural transformation is always a bumpy road but we’ve got big plans ahead.
Our five-year strategy (covering everything from Ofsted inspections, to teacher appraisals and job descriptions) is entirely focused on the student leaver profile. Curriculum teams in each department will have an improvement plan based on it. We’ve created rubrics so that students can self-assess. We’re even planning student-led conferences, where they’ll share their learning with parents and the wider community. How fast all this progresses isn’t really the point – the main thing is that we bring everyone along for the ride.
We’re a passionate, ambitious bunch at UTC South Durham. And you can bet we won’t stop until every one of our students is career and life-ready! None of this would be possible without Edge and Ford NGL. Although unlike many of the schools Edge that works with, we had industry engagement before, we were given an amazing opportunity to supercharge that. We’re accountable to Edge now and we certainly won’t let them down!
Catherine Purvis-Mawson is Vice Principal and Laura McAllister is Director of Teaching and Learning at UTC South Durham.