UTC diary

Posted on 22 Aug 2012

Dan Street, director of English at the Black Country UTC explains how the school’s revolutionary curriculum model breaks down the restricting subject silos evident in mainstream education in the UK.

Dan Street, director of English at the Black Country UTC

Imagine a baby playing with a shape and sort toy – you know, the one where you have different shapes that have to be out into the correct shaped hole until they’re all gone.

What happens when you try to force the cube through the triangle shaped hole? Easy. We all know it’s not going to happen, but the baby keeps trying different ways, and eventually it learns that it just won’t fit, tries another shape and it all ends in success. Hugs and warm feelings inside for all!

It’s a simple lesson, they’re all different so they can’t all follow the same route into the box – so why has the education system of government after government in the UK stuck to stubbornly pushing everyone through the same limited paths into employment? What about the opportunity to specialise or to say, I’m good at something, or passionate about something, and be given access to high quality equipment, specialist training and expert tuition from experienced professionals in the field?

This option certainly didn’t exist when I began my teaching career eight years ago in a large, traditional, and effective comprehensive school in Derbyshire. What a wonderful learning experience that was though; I worked with great people who enjoyed their job whilst remaining committed to professional values, a passion for the subject of English and clear philosophies for how it should be delivered.

But what more we could have achieved with an integrated curriculum! For example, why weren’t we assessing the fantastic performances GCSE drama students were producing week in, week out for our English speaking and listening assessments, instead of needlessly segmenting complimentary subjects and skills? Things like that seem so simple, so beneficial, so obvious really. But bureaucracy in mainstream education seems to make then nigh on impossible to achieve.

But that’s what we are trying to do at the Black Country UTC now. We want to capture good work and achievements wherever they happen and show students that skills and qualities don’t remain boxed away in set boundaries created by school timetables. We want to demonstrate to them that, in the professional world they want to enter, they will be required to select and utilise skills with confidence.

I got my best ever set of speaking and listening marks when our students presented their engineering work to engineering design agency, Haughton Design, simply because they had in depth knowledge and they had the pressure of speaking to the head of a company on a subject they all know is relevant to their futures. Put simply, it was ‘real’, and was valued by the students as a consequence.

I’d now like to challenge those still sceptical about the quality and value of vocational learning, to take a walk around our UTC where they will see students in engineering being prepared for technically challenging careers through a rigorous, mathematically complex and highly relevant diploma course.

Better still, get them to follow some of the leaders in industry who frequently visit. Because when they do, they are guaranteed to see recognition, appreciation and enthusiasm for what the next generation is learning.

The UTC model acknowledges that the world is changing. Industry is changing. And education needs to change with it. Let’s stop trying to fit square pegs into round holes, and let’s develop the next generation of first class, specialist scientists and engineers to take UK industry forward into the 21st century.