This case study describes the journey of an all-girls school that piloted the first engineering diploma, hoping to encourage creativity, thinking skills and teamwork. Liz Allen, Head of Newstead Wood School for Girls in Bromley, describes their aims and experience
Newstead Wood School for Girls is a highly selective school in the south London borough of Bromley. It was founded in the 1950s to give able girls similar opportunities to those offered to boys in a number of local independent and maintained grammar schools. We now have 1,000 students, aged 11 to 18, who come from a 7.5-mile catchment that spans rural, urban and inner-city areas and covers a rich mix of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Social mobility is a hallmark of the school: more than 70% of our students will be the first from their family to go to university. We encourage pupils to apply for Oxbridge when the course and the method of study are right for them. Newstead Wood’s pupils attain highly, placing the school at the top of national league tables. The school has a relatively high contextual value-added (CVA) score – 1,009 in 2007 – despite the pupils’ high attainment on entry, the fact that they are girls and that 35% come from high-attaining ethnic minorities. This has been achieved by the school’s focus on deep learning and personalisation, so that every student knows what she is able to achieve on her own, chosen learning pathway.
From its start, Newstead Wood’s driving purpose was to open up undergraduate and professional career opportunities, to break traditional moulds and to set wider vocational challenges and aspirations for girls.
In 2004, the school applied to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) to become a specialist engineering college to open up new learning and career opportunities to our students. Because engineering is grounded in creativity, thinking skills, teamwork and problem-solving, all of which are the fundamentals of a thriving learning environment, it emphasised our pedagogical principles too. The students quickly realised these benefits the engineering specialism would offer them, but we also needed to win the approval of parents, many of whom saw engineering in narrow, masculine terms. Once parents appreciated that there would be expanded research, business, design and entrepreneurial prospects arising for their daughters, they were very supportive.
Conducive learning environment
Since 2002, the school had been creating a climate that is conducive to the diploma. It had embraced Curriculum 2000, redesigned its curriculum, its school timings, its leadership and management structures, to become more flexible and so more receptive to change. More significantly, we had shifted from being a curriculum content focused institution to becoming a learning focused organisation and so we were finding the national curriculum too limited. We were searching for programmes that would better meet our students’ skills and competencies and that would serve their aspirations to apply their learning in meaningful ways.
The learning conditions were right for introducing the diploma at Newstead Wood:
Right learning conditions
The organisational elements were also in place:
Like many urban schools, for many years, we had felt relatively isolated and in competition with our neighbouring schools. But from 2004, since taking on specialist status, the conditions were right for Newstead Wood to expand its local and national networks – see the box below.
Ready for collaboration
Our successful collaborative practices have been instrumental in preparing us for introducing the diploma.
In at the start
In 2006, when the skills sector councils were commissioned to draft the specifications for the first five diploma lines, that included engineering, the SSAT’s national headteachers’ steering group responded very quickly. The SSAT’s national engineering coordinator was invited by the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta) to join the Engineering Diploma Development Panel (EDDP) and he negotiated places on it for two engineering college headteachers, and I was one of these. Together, we were able to exert considerable influence over the content of the specification and to ensure that there was full consultation with higher education (HE) engineering departments as well as with engineering specialist schools’ heads.
Despite the enthusiasm and good leadership of Semta’s Engineering Diploma Development Panel, there were important questions that were challenging to address – see below.
Developing the engineering diploma: challenges to overcome
By the time the specification was published in early 2007, we were well informed and able to consider Gateway applications.
The sticking point for some engineering specialist schools was the lack of readiness in their local authorities (LAs), through whom the Gateway applications needed to be made. We were among the more fortunate schools with a supportive LA that kept us informed so that we were then better placed to make a successful Gateway application.
When the opportunity arose to make the Gateway application, Bromley’s 14–19 strategy group audited its provision in each of the five diploma lines, identifying leading practice and where there was the capacity to develop. For each diploma line, one institution demonstrated greater provision and capacity, so it then took the lead in preparing the Gateway application, collaborating with two or more who had shown a good level of provision and capacity to develop. With excellent oversight from the LA’s 14-19 director, the applications were then prepared by the lead school. We were the lead school for the engineering Gateway application. Two of the other lines – creative and media, and IT – were also successful after minor adjustments. All three are being piloted in 2008-09.
Planning for pilot year
Planning for the pilot year began in April 2007. The engineering staff in the two schools and one further education (FE) college began to meet immediately, with Newstead Wood’s engineering specialism development manager as their lead.
Jenny Wright is in constant contact with the LA’s 14–19 director and with the school’s deputy headteacher (curriculum development) so that planning can move at pace. The weakness in the team’s working is that the headteacher and the principal of the partner institutions have not been so closely engaged in the diploma’s development. So far, Jenny is managing to overcome the difficulties that this raises, either on her own or with the assistance of the LA 14–19 director. With hindsight, I would have met with my two partner school colleagues and established some working protocols to ease the development planning process. However, the creative solutions that Jenny has found may well be more sustainable and prove the creative powers of an able engineer!
The original plan was to have each institution to lead on one diploma level.
In practice, one will run level 1, two will run level 2 and one will run level 3. The collaborative’s teaching and physical resources will be used to meet students’ specific learning requirements at all three levels. More detailed planning will be carried out once the recruitment on to the pilot year is completed.
Our school’s annual detailed curriculum and development planning had taken place in autumn 2006. Inclusion of the diploma into the curriculum offer for September 2008 was planned from then. Year 9 and Year 11 progression and options procedures had the diploma sitting alongside our other courses. To achieve this required detailed preparation – see below.
Keeping all inspired
At level 2 (Key Stage 4), the engineering diploma has been introduced as a design and technology (DT) option, replacing GCSE manufacturing in the curriculum offer. Initially, it proved more popular than manufacturing because it offers a more personalised and applied learning experience. A remark by a member of staff to a few Year 9 pupils during the options process reminded me of how fragile innovation can be, as a number of students changed their options to triple science, to be ‘safe’. Despite my best endeavours to assure the students that the diploma is designed for all abilities and despite the teacher’s profuse apologies and retraction of her remark, the pupils changed back to a traditional academic option.
At level 3, I introduced the diploma at the sixth-form open evening in November 2007. We shall start the pilot year with at least five students, which is a good size for a pilot group. The diploma will be delivered in the time normally allocated to 2.5 A-level courses. This leaves students the opportunity to study two further A-level subjects – they tend to choose physics and maths to ensure they meet university conditional offers and secure their higher education (HE) progression. This is wholly understandable for the first cohort but it reminds me once again that there is still much more work to be done in promoting the diploma to educationalists, as having parity of esteem with advanced levels, and much more.
Programming the diplomas alongside GCSEs and GCEs and across institutions appears to throw up logistical problems and timetabling constraints. But we are determined that the diploma will fit comfortably within our curriculum design and that no pupil will feel different from her peers. The three institutions are planning delivery accordingly – see the box below for examples.
|Strategies for overcoming logistical problems
The approach to planning adopted by our collaborative minimises the demand on travel between institutions and places no significant constraints on timetables nor on students’ core and option studies.
Perhaps the less common solution to collaborative delivery is the use of a third, twilight out-of-school hours session. Twilight learning and teaching can be a sensitive subject, but at Newstead Wood, whenever it is used, it is with teachers’ full agreement and usually at their request, and the conditions are clearly defined. Those teaching these sessions will then have time off in lieu during the school day, so that their overall timetabled hours are the same as for non-twilight teachers.
Every diploma element is being planned to the same principle – we use current best practice and develop or extend where necessary, as the box at the below outlines.
Planning each diploma element
Staff at Newstead Wood were well prepared for teaching the diploma by being actively engaged in the engineering specialism’s curriculum and community development plans, the regional and national engineering networks and other national programmes. The inhouse developments in learning pedagogy, enrichment and applied learning have helped to make the conditions right. Yet there are real challenges that need to be addressed:
- resourcing statutory learning elements
- identifying staff expertise and where there are gaps
- recruiting staff with the appropriate PGCE preparation
- supporting science staff in delivering the applied science element.
Currently, there are very few teacher training places for engineering. The Gateway training is valuable but six days for core staff is insufficient to meet all the immediate training requirements. I am relying, as ever, on the dedication, huge capacity and professionalism of Jenny and her team, to create a scheme that will deliver the diploma to the necessary high standard. The draft format is designed to complement the other programmes of study, allowing easy transfer of knowledge and skills, so the students should not notice the difference and the teachers will take the strain.
Role of applied learning
Our main driver for piloting the diploma was our desire to provide a more applied learning programme for able pupils. We have a well-established careers education and guidance programme and an excellent bank of work-experience providers, needed to deliver the applied learning elements and the workplace learning of the diploma. We also needed to rely on other aspects as well – see the box below.
Requirements for delivering applied and workplace learning
We still need to find employers across a range of engineering disciplines and raise awareness of the diploma, in particular among smaller employers, who may not have the opportunity to be engaged in Semta’s activities.
Getting engaged in the diploma development is right for our students, but it has tested the school in a number of ways.
There are considerable capital resourcing issues for Newstead Wood, whose suitability to deliver 21st century learning will be stretched even further. The diploma does not appear to be ‘joined up’ to the DCSF’s capital initiatives sufficiently well to meet the physical resource needs. The grants for skills centres barely touch the need. Currently, I have no solution, nor any direction in which to travel to find one, to secure adequate capital resourcing for the diploma. As with other initiatives, we shall need to use all our creative and entrepreneurial talents to provide the physical resources, without compromising students’ progress or achievement.
Consortia are challenging. Meeting the aspirations of all three institutions is difficult. Too many compromises would weaken the diploma beyond its usefulness. Ultimately, each institution is driven by its own development priorities. Our solution is to have limited institutional overlap in the first instance and to allow collaboration to grow organically.
But the benefits of the diploma outweigh the issues – see the box below.
As it becomes more established, the scope of additional and specialist learning will expand. The extended project can be standalone and we can see how it could be expanded into other level 2 and 3 provision. The school has a well-established peer academic mentoring programme and a strong, pupil-led termly academic tutorial programme: both can be developed to embrace and to enhance diploma delivery.
Many heads are ‘waiting to see’. It is difficult to advise them on how to approach the diploma because our success rested on seizing the moment. But there is still time to get in at the beginning of most diploma lines, so our best advice remains: seize the initiative, and get on to a Diploma Development Panel if you can. The box below outlines our top tips for success – based on lessons we have learned along the way.
As for giving pupils access to all diploma lines and to the extended diploma – that is pushing at the edges of our best practice, but I am confident we shall find the way.
Liz Allen, Headteacher, Newstead Wood School for Girls, Bromley, London