Gathering STEAM

Newly-opened UTC@MediaCityUK is already making waves in the north-west digital scene. Stephanie Broad meets principal Anne Casey

Based in Media City UK in Salford, home to the BBC, ITV and numerous other media businesses, UTC@MediaCityUK is creating a Northern Powerhouse all of its own, training what will be some of the most employable young people in the country. Opened in September 2015, the UTC caters for 14-18 year-olds who have a passion for the creative industries. There are currently 240 students on roll and the college is oversubscribed for September, when there will be 500 students. 

The exterior of the UTC

Principal Anne Casey shows me around. 

“We are one of 55 UTCs, but we’re the only one in the country to be purely creative and digital,” Anne says. “Salford University is our sponsor – we call them Big School – and our students come from 81 different schools across Manchester and Salford. Some of them have a travel distance of four hours every day. Standard commuting time for a lot of our students is a minimum of two hours and we are 42% girls, which is unusual in the UTC world. 

“We have four technical pathways: TV, radio and audio, game design and graphics, with 71% of our students also studying A-levels. We’ve got a focus, not so much on media or Media City, but on international tech. So, while our students could end up working at the BBC or ITV, there are 250 SMEs across the road in addition and it’s not fully developed yet.” 

Though students at key stage four follow the National Curriculum, the UTC’s unique surroundings and facilities complement studies.

“They specialise, for example everyone does Spanish but we can do Spanish in the radio studios, everyone does history but we’ve got the Imperial War Museum and our history teacher is a photographer, so we can still do the eBacc, still do the full range,” Anne continues. “In year 10 they get an opportunity to do all four pathways before they specialise. Our A-levels are kept very closely linked to progression to university, or complement the technical pathways so they get a job.

“A lot of our games students do physics and maths, a lot of our TV students do A-level English and creative writing, or they can do physics or computer science – it’s a highly specialised curriculum.“

The light-filled building has views of Big School and the BBC.

Anne says: “You can see some of our sponsors across the road, so on our governing body we have the chief exec of the Lowry, the head of BBC Radio North, BBC futures, we’ve got the managing director of Media City, chief exec of The Landing, chief exec of north-west housing, chief exec of Inform Solutions.

“In terms of business development, our governing body are very well connected to north-west digital.” 

How involved are they in the running of the college? 

“Very. They’re very pro-active, active board of governors, and they have got the strategic business skills that they can leverage. We’ve also got the Vice-Chancellor of Salford University on the board, who guarantee our students get interviews, help them with their CVs, and a whole array of careers advice and guidance is made so much easier by the fact that everything is there, on our doorstep.

“The students are wearing branded clothes, so rather than wearing business suits, which I thought would be very odd in Media City, they wear ‘tech dress’. It’s very comfortable, really affordable as we have some low-income families as you would anywhere, but critically when they go into Media City everybody knows who they are.”

Students have been invited in as researchers on the BBC, worked on virtual reality, made films, worked on ITV News and one student has even been asked to advise on a subtitled children’s programme. 

“The immediacy of having a school on their doorstep is becoming ever-more apparent,” says Anne. “On a daily basis I get phone calls – this morning I had Greater Manchester Police asking if we’d come and make a film, they’ve done films for Salford Council, the radio students in here recently finished a project for a children’s hospice. They had 10 famous children’s authors who give us books, 10 actors who came in and recorded the stories which are now being sold on the internet as talking books to raise money from the hospice. The children are working on real-life briefs, showreels, building their confidence, giving them a sense of urgency to finish things on time. All of our teachers come from industry, but we also employ a lot of people who still work in Media City two days a week and come and teach here for three.”

In a radio studio, students are working hard, heads down – there is no sign of off-task behaviour anywhere in the college.

Anne continues: “We look at building up their entrepreneurial skills, so in addition to the curriculum, industrial and academic qualifications and the showreel, we teach them how to network, how to VAT returns because they will be working as freelancers, how to use social media to market themselves effectively – having a digital footprint that is a really positive and strong message about who they are as people and what they can do.’ 

Anne shows me a series of classrooms which were numbered until she renamed them to reflect the values of the school, such as ‘Determination’, ‘Passion’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Resilience’. 

“Resilience is a really valuable skill, particularly in the world of digital where it can be a disappointing world and you’ve got to be very determined to make a success,” Anne muses. “They know that when we talk about resilience they know that if they fall over, it’s OK – it’s how they get back up again and get things right. They will be able to use the language of business and entrepreneurship in interview situations that a lot of kids wouldn’t be using and that’s going to mark them out. Also the fact that they are very focused. Our hashtag is #Unstoppable. We have a STEAM agenda, which started off being very scientific and maths-orientated and then we put the arts in the middle of it and said to them, by having a STEAM agenda, working their socks off, they become unstoppable, the people who are going to get the best jobs.”

Some students have already set up their own businesses here.

“We’re giving them legal advice, financial advice, they have office space at 16 in Media City – but they have to earn that, they have to write a business case and are mentored by a business manager,” Anne explains. “Some will go on to apprenticeships, BBC have an excellent apprenticeship scheme, and some of them will get jobs and some will go to ‘big school’. It’s a good mix but in the world of digital particularly, you can have very young people setting up digital businesses. It’s not uncommon in Manchester creative industries to have chief execs who are 23 years old.” 

Where we are is very special because north-west digital and the Northern Powerhouse is a really important factor in our children’s future. A large part of that is digital jobs 

We stop to talk to a graphics student, Isaac, who is studying graphics and design.

“I hope to start out as a freelancer, doing contracts to produce graphics, motion graphics, and from there just see how I go,” he says. “I hope to get a job round here as there’s a lot of opportunities with the BBC and ITV, so it would be cool to get a job there.” 

What’s so special about studying here? 

“I like that it’s very different, because the UTC is a media college and it’s one of its kind, and they offer something that other colleges don’t really offer. I really enjoy graphics and design and other colleges didn’t offer that.”

We continue our tour of the state-of-the-art building, which was designed by a Manchester firm and made use of businesses in Salford, so there was a real local commitment to the project. 

“Seventy-six per cent of workers were from the North West, and the main people leading the procurement team were from Salford,” Anne says. 

“The students really respect it, they value the spaces and they value the resources – we don’t have vandalism.”

I suggest it’s the professional nature of the college that is behind this. 

“It’s a long day, 8.30am until 5pm – a business day. So they choose to travel further and study harder. The deal is, I’ve said to them, is that you will work harder than anyone else in the UK but you have opportunities that no-one else in the UK is going to have.”

Students prepare lights in a TV studio

We look around a large TV studio room, which has four cameras linked to a gallery. 

“They learn lighting, planning, production, editing, post-production, but critically they learn distribution, so they will be able to work in any sector that deals with digital assets – which is any company that uses the internet, which is every company in the world! 

“They are so employable, not because they can operate a camera, but they can manage tech, and that’s the real difference. 

“It’s very hands-on from day one. They get to use the cameras, and they’re encouraged to take kit home as we have a lot of portable kit. A lot of kids take it home on a Saturday, whether it’s to do charity work, or they’re in a band, it’s all work experience.” 

We want it to feel very different, and I think it does

Aside from expanding pupil numbers, what are the future plans for the college? 

“Expansion, and the further blurring of the academic and vocational lines so that it becomes increasingly more difficult to figure out if you are in an English lesson studying Shakespeare or in a TV lesion doing TV production. When it gets to the line where all the subjects are blended, outcomes improve across both vocational and academic – that’s the next step. 

“We’ve got off to a really great start, from the very first week. Last year, in the summer, we set up Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts for the class of 2015, for the parents really as the parents obviously didn’t know each other. It was really important to build a community and we did it initially through digital, as we’re a digital organisation, and then through picnics and BBQs, making sure that everybody connected and bought into the vision. 

“It’s a very personal UTC. All the kids, all the staff and all the parents have my mobile number and they know that they can phone me day or night, weekends, because it’s important that when we’re setting up something new, we are building success together. I know all the children’s names, I know then really well, they call us by our first names – it’s professional.

“Most children will rise to any challenge you set them – if you set the bar high they climb higher. We want it to feel very different, and I think it does.” 

I ask if the culture might change as more students join. 

“I don’t think so. They feel really special, it’s their UTC, and they own it.

“We had teething troubles, like any new organisation, but not around culture and behaviour. Everyone’s very clear what the vision and expectations are, and they feel really excited to be coming. To see an organisation where children are happy to come to learn every single day, is quite unusual and joyful – it’s a privilege for all of us to be involved in that, that the kids are prepared to get up at 5am as they want to learn.” 

Is this professional culture likely to reach the whole education sector as schools focus more on employability? 

“I think in times of recession, it focuses the mind on education and life opportunities. I also think where we are is very special because north-west digital and the Northern Powerhouse is a really important factor in our children’s future. A large part of that is digital jobs. We’re absolutely here at the right time, and I do think that with the resources and the employers coming in to teach them, our students are #Unstoppable.”