Nestled in the north of Bristol and surrounded by high-tech employers including Airbus and Rolls Royce, Bristol Technical & Engineering Academy (BTE Academy) is well-placed for its purpose. A 14-19 UTC specialising in STEM subjects, BTE opened in September 2013 – one of 13 that opened that month.
Principal Rhian Priest tells me about their journey as we sit in her office, which has a view of the outdoor break area and the professional-looking reception. “At the time it made us one of just 18 that were open nationally,” she says. “We were part of what I would call the first big tranche of UTCs – there had been a couple in 2011 and 2012 but it was the first big, national rollout that started in 2013. What makes us most significantly different from any other secondary school is that we’re only for 14-19 year olds, so the young people come to us at the start of year 10, and we have a focus on engineering, science, technology and maths. We were put in place to address the skills shortage within the sector, that’s what we’re about – developing the engineers and applied scientists of the future.”
The school currently has 330 pupils on roll, and anticipates filling its capacity of 420 by 2017. The cohort is split 50/50 between key stage four and key stage five, with just over 100 in each year group. The student cohort is 90% male and Rhian says the low number of girls on roll is representative of the engineering sector.
Their most recent advertising encourages girls to join: “Our early material was all about engineering, when actually what we wanted to do was encourage young people, not just girls but boys who have a passion for science and maths to come here, because that’s what engineering is about. I think within the population as a whole, the term engineering is misused, and misunderstood. Anything from mending your motorbike to repairing the photocopier requires an engineer. This is about designing and manufacturing the next generation of aeroplanes and various other high-tech devices.”
Students can access 3D printers, top-quality training and CNC machines – not dissimilar to what an SME would use.
“We’re about engineering predominantly, but with a STEM-focused curriculum for all,” Rhian continues. “The students are here until 4pm, so we have an extra five hours of teaching time per week. The ethos we develop is very much about how you conduct yourself in a work environment. You walk into lessons and it’s rare you’ll see students off task.”
UTCs are the breeding ground of the next generation of Navy engineers
The UTC’s sponsors include UWE, Airbus, GKN and Rolls Royce, and have a key part to play in school life – including representation on their board of governors.
“They work with us in a variety of ways,” says Rhian. “We run a number of curriculum projects throughout the year for key stage four, and they could be anything from designing and making model aeroplanes to testing wind turbines, but all of the projects are done in collaboration with our employer sponsors. The UWE organisation, Engineers Without Borders, supported us on a wind turbine day, where Rolls Royce, Airbus and GKN support us on an aeroplane manufacturing day. The Royal Navy support us in a number of ways. Many of the activities we engage in with the Royal Navy take place down in Portsmouth on HMS Bristol – lots of national competitions, as well as residential visits, and a combined cadet force on site. This is new, and popular – quite inspirational in terms of the students engaging in the opportunities it involves.
“That’s at key stage four – at key stage five, we have significant support from Airbus in particular, in terms of the work they do in supporting the delivery of the curriculum – integrated curriculum projects at key stage four, but projects directly contributing to a qualification at key stage five. The Airbus Wing Academy is a team of graduates working with our year 13s as part of their BTEC project, designing a new aeroplane. That’s specifically linked in to their qualification.”
Employability is a big consideration in UTCs – the schools are geared towards getting their students into a skilled technical vocation.
Rhian explains: “Once a fortnight, on a Wednesday afternoon there’s no curriculum, and the whole school is focused on ‘employability’. Organisations come in and talk students about working as an engineer or computer scientist and what that actually means. We’ve had a whole raft of employers come in, who we work with in a variety of ways, in addition to our prime supporters. They also come in and speak about apprenticeship opportunities. The employer engagement is hugely significant compared to what a traditional school would have.
“In the early days, as it was so new, I don’t think employers were truly aware of what was needed, and we were all school teachers who really had to work closely with the employers to look at how we could develop a progamme that was fit for purpose without being too onerous on the organisations. We’re really pleased with where we’re at at the moment because weve got the perfect mix – what it does is complement the curriculum and alongside what we call our QED Passport.”
The QED Passport is a booklet for students which lists the key skills employers have said they look for, and allows students to tick off skills they feel they have developed – with examples.
Rhian continues: “We got employers in a room and asked them what qualities they want from our engineers, and they came up with a list and this is what we developed as a result. We’ve got five key qualities but within that, a definition for each. So as students go through their time with us here, they log examples. It doesn’t lead to a formal qualification but our key employers have said that if they complete it and they come for work experience or an apprenticeship they will ask to see it. It really does give it credibility.”
“Significantly,” Rhian says. “I would say not just 10 years ago, but in the two years they’ve been with us. The appeal of apprenticeships within engineering can’t be understated. This year, 24% of our students got an apprenticeship at 18 or 19, and the national figure is eight and a half percent. Forty-nine percent went to university, and the national figure is 37%. We were really pleased with that outcome. We were the highest institution in the local authority for level three value-added, so with the level three vocational students roughly achieved a third of a grade better here than similar pupils nationally.”
University destinations for the current year 13s include Bristol, Warwick, Coventry, Portsmouth and Bath. There’s also a large appetite for apprenticeships, so much so that the Royal Navy have launched an apprenticeship programme just for UTC students. Several BTE students are through to the final round.
Rhian continues: “UTCs are the breeding ground of the next generation of Navy engineers.
“Most of the boys who are applying to that spent a week on HMS Bristol last summer as part of a residential opportunity that the Royal Navy had put in for UTC students. It was a fabulous opportunity to do a ‘taster week’ staying on board the training ship down there. It motivated them to find out even more about the Royal Navy.
“We also have students who are following more traditional routes. It’s important to stress that young people who want an apprenticeship are clearly having an advantage through coming here, through our existing links through the advice and oppotunities we are able to provide, but we do have a number of young people who are following a more traditional route into engineering [through universities].”
Looking around the school, the professional ethos is present everywhere. A packed room of sixth formers are studying at desks and computers, industrious and focused. In the workshops, GCSE students work diligently on their designs – using professional grade laser cutters and plasma cutters to produce innovative products. Students walking the corridors wear their uniform smartly, and with pride – with the attitude of a conscientious university student.
With 39 already open and 55 planned by 2017, the UTC movement is clearly equipped to train the scientists and innovators of the future. We can’t wait to see how it grows.