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‘I am astounded’

img_1054Those were the words of the STEM ambassador Gareth Attwood who came to support our event today. He was unable to come first thing so joined the activity at the end of the morning. ‘How can I help them?’ he asked as he arrived. I suggested he just go and have a chat with each group to get an idea of what they were doing. So what were they doing?

They were focussing on how to be creative. That doesn’t mean they were drawing pretty pictures for fun. They had tackled a range of activities during the first part of the morning that got them thinking about creativity for a purpose and how that related to jobs that they might like to do….or not do in the future. Considering we had a mix of Y1s from Ormesby Primary and Y4s from St Benedict’s it was brilliant how they mixed in with ideas. All this prepared them for a task to design a new LEGO set using the great ‘Build to Express’ sets as a basis. Of course they were not allowed to just build. They had to create a simple business plan starting with targeting an audience, identifying a value proposition for that audience then working out their USP. Confused? They weren’t!

To show how fabulous their teamwork was I also asked them to make a short advert. I had assumed that they knew how to use iMovie but they didn’t. Was that a problem? Not really. They had a problem to solve so they overcame it. I gave them a few pointers and the results are below. I occasionally run whole days using iMovie as a great vehicle for developing wider ’employability’ skills in a creative context. A whole day using iMovie produces a very polished product; these children not only learned the basics of iMovie but also planned and produced a short movie to a brief…in 45mins. Well done to all of them. As I said before they left,  ‘If you watch it and think you could have done a bit better here or a lot better there then brilliant – because you are now learning to add quality to your work and will build it in next time’.

Passing a test is a one off event; walking around with an understanding of how to improve is effective for ever.

Lull before the Storm

Many people think that we shut down the Centre during the school holidays but nothing could be further from the truth. It is our opportunity to improve the environment and services for customers and develop our program of events and projects for the coming year while it is a bit quiter.This Summer we have been busier than ever.

IMG_6011Our refurbishment plans are well underway but will sadly drag on into September; if we ran a school the way that some businesses seem to work then we would be sacked within weeks;

‘Oh sorry Mrs Scoggins but your child won’t achieve basic literacy and numeracy levels for three weeks longer than we told you last week when you enrolled him; supplier let us down…”

However, that is but a minor irritation.The real task has been setting up of the work that we do on a day to day basis. Yes we have the best conference centre in the area…and we are improving it further….but the work that we do for the schools that fund us or use us is set to expand immensely.

As previous posts reveal, a lot of the events and projects that we run from here have become increasingly concerned with the purpose of education. Our belief is that qualifications are important, show me a school that is not taking that seriously, but we aim to support the wider aim of education. Namely we are developing students awareness of what careers they could have, how they could enter those careers and how to develop their skills and become effective lifelong learners. Last year we began that mission in earnest with strategies like: STEM days where students of different ages came to experience hands on workshops with real people from real industries; Challenge Days where students had to work on time limited challenges in their own classrooms, organising their workload, team roles and so on; and connecting schools with industry and business on request to fit with curriculum needs.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 12.24.16These were hugely successful, we had over 3000 children involved in one way or another and the feedback from teachers has been outstanding. But all I see when I look at ‘3000 children involved’ is ‘what about the others?’ Being a proactive sort of bloke I am aiming to change that dramatically this year. My Summer has been filled with meetings and planning sessions to enable me to put in front of local schools a detailed menu of events (usually free), projects (usually free) and link ups with local industry outreach so that employability skills become high on every educator’s agenda. Last week saw the news that Ernst and Young, a huge company and attractive destination for a career, are not bothering to even look at the qualifications of people who apply to work there. They will be judged on their CV, application letter and in house aptitude tests. In the last week alone there have been several articles suggesting that the ‘academic route’ based on exam performance leads to a false belief that a degree gives a great chance of highly paid career. Two reports, one from the CIPD and the other from the EDGE Foundation, both suggest that this is simply not the case and that university leavers are simply too numerous in terms of the highly paid jobs market.

And yet we hear constantly that there is a huge skills gap, especially in the more technical jobs that current students could be aiming to fill. Big problem, so what is little old Inspire2Learn going to do?

Well it has become abundantly clear to me by addressing this problem over the last 12 months that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who all agree that this is a problem and that we need to do something about it. The problem as I see it is that there is one group doing something in one place, somebody doing a bit of something in another, a company offering Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 12.26.11outreach in a different place and so on. There is NO cohesion. My many meetings have been an attempt to pull some of those strands together so that schools can get a clear idea of what is out there and industry have a simple way of making sure that their offers to schools of placements, site visits, outreach work and so actually gets heard by the right people. I’d be astonished to find a school who doesn’t have any eye on preparing their students for their future beyond a set of test certificates but it strikes me that each school is replicating the work that others have done when it could easily be laid on a plate for them to choose from. That is my task.
We also need to be mindful of the industries and businesses who get involved with outreach work. Most are very happy to do so. They see it as giving something back, helping prepare their potential future employees and many have also told me it is good for their staff morale and ethos too. By collating all the wonderful opportunities into one place we can potentially also avoid the situation where one school gets ‘all the good stuff’ because they maybe have someone with more time to spend on organising it, or whatever.

There is also another side to this too. I have spent much of the Summer reading and analysing many of the reports and IMG_6004studies that have been written in recent years pertaining to what ’employability skills’ look like. By conducting a cross study analysis several skills, experiences and attitudes are emerging as key themes. These define what a school leaver would ideally be like to prepare them for the world of work at the age of say sixteen. The image on the right shows my work in progress. I must admit, I would be hard pressed to say that I excel in all of those areas myself, but they are the aspiration and different statements are more heavily weighted to differentpotential employment. But as a teacher it immediately makes me think:

‘If that is what they need to be like at 16, what do we need to do at 15, 14, 11, 9, 5? Where does it start and how does it progress?’

Schools take the same approach to any subject that they want students to achieve at. They look at the outcome and they plan a program of study to achieve it. And before I get shot down by the ‘we don’t have time, OfSTED won’t judge us on it’ I would like to point out that many of the statements that have emerged are actually already part of the wider curriculum, often in several subjects. Many of the more work specific ones ‘able to conduct a formal conversation on a telephone’ are rarely taught in any school that I know of but feature highly in some of the projects that we will be running from the centre (Junior Engineer Project for example where students have to phone a company to negotiate for materials – the company has offered to make somebody available as part of their outreach offer’). These projects and events are usually one off days, or run over a half term for a specific group of students, they are not massively time consuming and the overall benefits for motivation and engagement are huge. Under the new OfSTED framework inspectors will also be very attentive to what schools are delivering in terms of the wider curriculum and how schools are making their provision fit the local needs of our students. Last time I looked unemployment seemed to be a pretty high priority locally…

One off days are great, but they are one offs, hardly conducive to developing skills. But imagine a world:

Every year from Reception onwards little Billy takes part in a time limited, team based challenge for one day, three times a year, his work is published on the internet. As he gets older he is involved in a range of events such as a one off event working with an engineer building bridges (Connor Lishmann from Cleveland Bridge does some fantastic work with our students), maybe in Y5 he does the Fiver Challenge (supported locally by Young Enterprise) and maybe in Y6 potentially a site visit to SSI Steel. In Y7 he is part of a team in the Mindstorms Lego League Challenge, presenting his ideas to a large audience. In Y8 maybe a guided visit around Teesport; each year he gets involved in another event or two, building up his awareness of possible careers, his understanding of appropriate behaviours in professional contexts and his skill set through lots of pertinent activities.

DSC_0501This raises his realistic aspirations to a career in an area that interests him, creating the motivation that might just get a bit more homework or revision done because there is a bigger picture now more clear for him. All of these events and projects ensure that he is getting to meet people who actually do that job, maybe people who were just like him when they were his age.

Our full offer for schools (and any business that would love to get involved) will be posted soon on the Events page on this site. Redcar and Cleveland schools get first refusal and pretty much everything for no charge on most of the offer because they fund this centre. Previously only teachers from other Local Authorities have used the centre for courses and events but we want to now extend that offer to students as well where space allows. We live in the Tees Valley and political boundaries should not be a barrier to creating a better region for all of us to live and work in, especially in light of the  impending creation of a ‘combined authority’.

If you are a school or a business in the area and want to join in with this then please contact me: astogdale@lea.rac.sch.uk

Sermon over!

Raising Ambition

Having paid some attention in the last few weeks to the 2012 CBI report outlining their view of the way that Education is THE crucial factor in improving the economic well being of this country in the long term, I am now more convinced than ever that the focus Inspire2Learn is applying to many of our activities is essential. The report outlines lots of different issues that the business world feel need to be addressed by the education system and by and large they fit with our experiences working in our schools. Take the primary years as an example. The report suggests that primary schools essentially widen the gap between the most disadvantaged and the rest. For this area I can address that concern directly. Our primary schools are VERY focussed on ensuring that this gap does not widen, in fact they ensure it narrows. OfSTED judgements and results in formal tests back this up, we are one of the most improved areas in the country in this respect. So that aside, what else does the report suggest? It explicitly states that qualifications are often not the main problem that employers are concerned about. A lack of the skills that are not ‘tested’ and not specifically ‘taught’ is what holds many of their potential employees back. These skills are defined in the table taken from the report: Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 11.47.01 Educationalists will immediately recognise echoes of various PSHE schemes and ideas like Claxton’s 4R’s in their choice of vocabulary and focus. They also add that in their view it is ESSENTIAL to ensure regular contact between schools and business to raise awareness of opportunities and also provide excellent role models. Interestingly the report suggests that this should begin: “in the primary phase – at a time when aspirations and attitudes are being shaped …… There is a strong case for doing a great deal more at this stage to broaden pupils’ horizons” (p.42)

Now let’s get back on track…. IMG_4916STEM day 3 was busier than ever. Mixing students from Freebrough Academy (Yr10) and Normanby Primary Academy (Yr5) we had a fabulous day of hands on activities ranging from building bridges to creating physical databases. Unlike previous events we began the day as one large group in the auditorium where the manic John Kilcoyne did his best to set off the fire alarm with every chemical explosion he could muster. It set the tone for the day as the children were then full of enthusiasm for everything else we threw at them. Have you ever wondered what is in toothpaste? How do they test if it is effective? Ask any of the students who worked with Ann Bunting from Middlebrough College and they will tell you about the chemicals involved and much you should bother paying for your next tube! Mike Roberts worked his expertise with groups to programme a mobile phone remotely using an Arduino. It was fascinating to see Mike working through the code as some of the students chipped in ‘you’ve missed a bracket off’ when it was time for fault finding. Liam Weatherill from the Engineering Development Trust had a really innovative approach to the use of databases that didn’t use a computer once. From sorting verbal information to rearranging a gazillion buttons, the children really engaged with his hands on approach to how a database actually works.

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A STEM day wouldn’t be complete without Connor Lishman from Cleveland Bridge. He wanted to improve his workshop from the previous event by extending the spa of the bridges that had to be built, supplying a wider range of materials but using a charging system (poker chips) for what the children could use. It worked really well and it was brilliant to watch the collaborative planning and execution of the work actually achieve the purpose it was set for. Gareth Attwood was a star! Drafted in at the last minute to hold the fort in a structure building session (think marshmallows and spaghetti) he really engaged the students with what a good structure might look like and how to bring it together. He sad to me at the end of the day, ‘I isn’t just the activity, it is about the questioning, the engagement and communication skills that make them successful’. I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks have to go once more to STEMnet who use their fabulous ambassadors to make the day possible. We aim to run an expanded program of events next year and also offer some free training for anybody who wishes to come and run these type of workshops. We do appreciate that not everybody is comfortable to be in that ‘teacher’ role and we want to support anybody who wishes to give something back to their local community in this way. All in all, really inspiring. Children talking about it for days afterwards and a comment from one staff member at Normanby “that was an amazing day, it is the sort of thing that our kids needs to give them a reason to do well at school”.

Let me remind any reader who has made it this far to the comments referred to earlier in this post from the CBI. Engaging our youngest learners sets the tome for how they progress. Give an eight year old an hour making bridges with an actual engineer and that sort of experience is potentially life changing. They aren’t too cool for school at that age! Although the days are very successful, and will continue, we also want to build a more regular contact programme in association with partners like EDT and STEMnet to better give students a context for their learning, for doing well at school, for developing those life skills (made explicit). If you would like to be involved please let us know. As a starter for ten we will be announcing a project that any school can get involved with FOR FREE beginning after Easter. It will involve students of all ages working as an after school club, an informal lunchtime group or even a whole class, it doesn’t matter, the work will be focussed on developing those employability skills and showing that development.