Back to school

Posted on 3 Sep 2010 by The Manufacturer

Yesterday the first cohort of students at The JCB Academy started their schooling with a difference. TM's Jane Gray visited the pioneering institution to see the school in action.

Housed in a beautifully refurbished Arkwright cotton mill The JCB Academy exudes pride in British industry past, present and future. With over 200 years of industrial heritage the institution celebrates the evolution of engineering and manufacturing in the UK and aims to nurture future generations of technically minded entrepreneurs. Jim Wade, principle of the JCB Academy, told TM: “There is lingering feeling with the general public that manufacturing and engineering careers are second-rate to other professions. The aim of The JCB Academy is to restore an impression of aspiration around industry.”

The new school, which opened for the first time yesterday, enrolled its maximum capacity of 120 year 10 students and will welcome a further 70 year 12 students on Monday September 13 eventually the school will provide for over 500 students across four year groups. The school was highly oversubscribed before opening and places were awarded to the current students by a strictly random allocation. The children are all from the local catchment area and have elected to attend the specialist institution to ensure a learning experience tailored to their enthusiasm for STEM subjects and to enhance careers prospects. Andy Brook one of the new students told TM: “As soon as I heard about the new academy I wanted to come here. I knew it would give me better prospects for the kind of job I want.”

The JCB academy, 90% state funded with the remainder of its sponsorship coming from neighbouring JCB, has been equipped with a huge range of the latest high tech manufacturing, engineering and design equipment in order to support its unique delivery of STEM subject teaching. A broad variety of companies have chosen to partner with the academy to devise this syllabus and have committed to donating time and expertise so that students can get a clear idea about how their schooling applies to real world engineering, manufacturing and business challenges. Wade says: “The principle behind the academy is that no student should ever have to ask ‘why am I learning this?’. Our partners have been enthusiastic and surprisingly passionate about supporting that principle and together we have devised a range of exciting projects for the students to work on which will tie their learning to hands-on challenges.”

Visiting the JCB Academy it is hard to imagine any child failing to be inspired and enthused by the unique learning environment which allows them access to Britain’s only plasma cutter housed in a school, laser cutters, 3D printers, advanced CAD software and a horde of other specialist equipment. TM asked student Mark Umerah what had excited his interest most so far: “There is a 3D room where you can go and see your computer designs in virtual 3D. That is amazing”.

The first cohort of students at The JCB Academy will achieve GCSEs in core subjects including Maths, Science, English and German delivered by a diverse range of teaching staff. This staff (who are known as learning managers, not teachers) include core subject directors with mainstream teaching qualifications as well as a dedicated team of Engineering team leaders and mentors with extensive experience across a range of industries including automotive, chemical processing and rail engineering. They also have a wealth of business and management knowledge.

With so much buzz and excitement in the air for the student’s exceptional back to school experience it is easy to forget the pressure and expectation now placed on the college to succeed in its unorthodox approach to education. TM asked Wade if he had any concerns about the academy’s ability to deliver. “Not really. We have to succeed because we have a duty of trust to every young person here, and to their parents, to do the best we can for them. My only concern in the long term is that the extra funding we get from the Department of Education for the delivery of the Advanced Diploma in Engineering which forms the back bone of or our year 12 and 13 study may eventually disappear. We simply could not give them the kind of dynamic learning experience we are planning for the next year without the additional thousand pounds per student we currently get for supplying the Diploma.

“However, The Royal Academy of Engineering, Cambridge University and the IMechE have all voiced their support for the Engineering Diploma so I can’t see that it is likely the government would withdraw theirs.”

Aside from these concerns Wade’s other nagging dissatisfaction is that the first intake of students is, perhaps unsurprisingly, characterised by a disproportionate majority of male students. “Of our 120 current students only 12 are girls. We wanted to ring-fence places for girls so that we could guarantee places for a reasonable number but equal opportunities rules meant we couldn’t and consequently we have a few girls who got pushed back to the waiting list – the allocation of places had to be absolutely random.”

Nigel Chell, PR manager at JCB whose Rocester plant is barely a stone’s through from the academy spoke with justified pride about the institution. “It is a fantastic facility. Every adult I have spoken to who has seen it has wanted to be 14 again just to have the opportunity to learn there.”

The JCB Academy is the first of a batch of new technical academy planned by the Baker-Dearing project. As head of the pioneer institution Wade is now helping with the progress of the next wave by giving advice and guidance. The next technical academy, due to open in 2012, will be based in the Aston locality and supported by Aston University.

Jim Wade will be sharing his experiences of setting up The JCB Academy, establishing its industry partnerships and describing its curriculum at The Manufacutrer Directors Conference 2010, November 18.