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

School context

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

  • A strong, far-sighted specialism
  • A climate that embraces change
  • A research-orientated community, confident to commit to new, untried ways of working
  • Strong student voice (student leadership is more accurate), with pupils engaged in school development planning
  • Deep learning embedded
  • Well-established inhouse information, advice and guidance (IAG)
  • Enrichment and extra-curricular applied learning as an entitlement
  • Curriculum boundaries at least blurred, with every opportunity for multidisciplinary enquiry
  • Every Child really Matters and is on her personal learning journey, supported by rigorous academic tutorials that put her in control
  • Skills and competencies matter before knowledge and understanding, allowing students to be creative, resilient and self-managing

The organisational elements were also in place:

Organisational factors

  • A distributed leadership structure in which every member of staff is a learning leader and every teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) payment carries accountabilities for each student’s best achievement and welfare.
  • A flexible staffing structure that can respond quickly to new responsibilities through a representative staffing structure group
  • A flexible, creative approach to curriculum design and development,
  • co-constructed with pupils and led by their needs
  • A curriculum structure with clear learning progression pathways
  • A curriculum based on the development of skills and competencies, recognising the importance of citizenship, enterprise and ethical decision-making

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

  • We were already offering minority A-level subjects to students from other schools
  • Our specialist engineering community development plan was giving us opportunities to work more closely with local secondary schools and we were able to support their specialist plans in return
  • The school became very active in the engineering specialism’s regional and national networks.
  • The LA’s 14–19 strategy group was formed and is extremely well led – heads and college principals became actively committed to its success
  • The LA’s Education Business Partnership (EBP) grew and developed its provision in support of the 14–19 strategy
  • National strategies allowed far greater collaboration and outreach to take place, for example, through the work of SSAT lead practitioners, London Challenge, National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) and the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) gifted and talented (G&T) activities, and the Key Stage 3 Strategy
  • The school’s research work expanded our collaboration with universities and fellow researchers in other schools

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

  • The (expected) tension between various employment sectors in Semta. Some wanted trained engineers for specific industries and others wanted potential engineers with strong personal competencies, functional skills and the ability to apply their learning in a variety of contexts.
  • The diploma needed to inspire all students and to be attractive to girls and ethnic minorities. The early draft met none of these needs. It was more a ‘can do’ list of engineering tasks. The more entrepreneurial employers on the EDDP were concerned that the diploma would be unattractive to the bright students that they were seeking to employ.
  • The early draft specification contained no learning objectives. Once this was pointed out to the EDDP team, they were drafted and quickly met with our approval. They now show strong progression through each level and good pathways into and out of each level.
  • Early responses from headteachers and HE representatives were extremely cautious: the draft showed insufficient rigour in maths and physics, particularly at level 3. Once again, very quickly, the EDDP team addressed the issue, following detailed consultation with HE. Now, for example, the level 3 maths and physics elements match advanced level standards.
  • At the start of the EDDP’s deliberations, it appeared to be on a narrowly-defined path, preparing a diploma for potential automotive, civil and mechanical engineers. Once the scope widened – to biomedical, nautical, environmental, genetic, for example – and when the EDDP’s thinking became as creative as engineering should be, the diploma ‘came to life’ and began to show how it could meet its brief and inspire young men and women to become the engineers of the future who will find creative solutions to the world’s environmental challenges, as well as securing their own and others’ economic wellbeing.

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

  • The careers education and guidance (CAG) staff ensured that information on options, universities and colleges admissions service (UCAS) and careers was detailed and up to date
  • Tutors and subject staff were kept informed so that their advice could be accurate – this was not entirely successful and we should have been more rigorous in our awareness-raising, especially for part-time staff
  • I used every opportunity, at parents’ evenings and in newsletters, to keep parents informed
  • I ensured that governors were fully involved in the diploma’s introduction – their active involvement in the engineering specialism helped this greatly

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 level 2 diploma fits into the GCSE options programme, as a DT option in the case of engineering
  • The level 3 diploma is in the general advanced level offer and will be timetabled in two blocks
  • The level 1 diploma will be offered by the FE partner as part of its established programme of courses
  • All engineering students will have one twilight session per week in which they can access physical and teaching resources across the three institutions
  • Students will choose additional learning options from their institution’s current curriculum offers

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

  • Functional skills: the challenge for planners is that the new GCSEs are not yet in place and so in the pilot year we shall need to rely on the diploma to deliver them. Design and technology, maths and physics teachers are mapping the functional skills and will then put together a delivery programme that will cover them. This will be revised next year in the light of the GCSE provision.
  • Personal learning and thinking skills: these are already a considerable strength of the school’s provision. Three days of the diploma training has focused on PLTS. In essence, it is the DT approach to the curriculum, with an emphasis on creativity, design, practical problem-solving, evaluation and presentation. Schemes of work are being written in a framework of PLTS, with a strong emphasis on applied learning. The school’s engineering principles of creativity, thinking skills, problem-solving and teamwork have created the readiness for the diploma. The school’s commitment to deep learning has empowered pupils to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Assessment: is a challenge! Despite their training, practitioners remain unsure of the standards. They anticipate that the exam board’s training during this summer term will shed light where it is needed and I hope that they will not be frustrated. Teachers are happy in principle with the inhouse, assignment-based approach to assessment, that their FE colleagues are more familiar with. They believe their pupils will make efficient use of their guided learning hours as a consequence.
  • Enterprise weeks and challenge days: are well established already, as part of the school’s commitment to enrichment. It is hoped that the enterprise experiences designed for the diploma students will have a wider, more general application across year groups.
  • Additional or specialist learning: is one of the great attractions of the diploma. It allows pupils to create a whole, cohesive yet broad study programme at level 2 and at level 3, or to create a deep, specialised course that prepares them for a professional, vocational pathway into the world of work. One of the most exciting outcomes of our engineering specialism is the impetus it has given to modern foreign languages (MFL). The MFL department was very quick to seize opportunities to collaborate with the engineering team. Most of our students who intend to choose an engineering vocational route study a modern foreign language at advanced level and so the move to the diploma is straightforward for them. In 2007, Newstead Wood was granted high performing specialist status (HPSS) following an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspection report. We saw great opportunities for the diploma development if we were able to have a joint languages and vocational second specialism, but in the event we were granted only languages. Nevertheless, through the diploma, we shall continue to create vocational opportunities, in particular for our engineering and languages pupils. We shall not neglect our non-diploma pupils because we are using the second specialism as the opportunity to introduce the international baccalaureate (IB) from September 2009, adding more breadth and choice to our level 3 learning pathways. We are delighted to learn that we are selected as one of Greater London’s IB schools, which will give us another learning network to take part in.

Preparing staff
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

  • Strong provision from the EDP
  • Well-established work experience in KS4, including international placements
  • Commitment from the school’s stakeholders to find the best work-experience placements
  • A work-shadowing opportunity in Y12, with pupils proactive in finding placements that meet their vocational plans
  • Employer engagement in the curriculum
  • The school’s strong reputation and relationship with employers, based on excellent work experience organisation and the high standards of initiative, independence and enthusiasm of students when in their placements

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.

Taking stock
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.

Core benefits

  • We maintain our reputation for innovation, which is attractive to potential new staff
  • We are active in national educational development, which builds the school’s confidence and opens up professional and career opportunities for the staff
  • The diploma consolidates and expands on the school’s innovative learning pedagogy, emphasising the focus on skills and competencies, raising the profile of applied learning
  • Pupils are given full opportunity to pioneer real change and to bring about parity of esteem for academic and vocational learning
  • Opening up diploma lines to students across a local authority will add impetus to the already excellent collaboration and will offer more pupils more learning pathways, improving personalisation

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.

Top tips

  • Build on your specialism as your way into the diploma, especially through your community development plan
  • Affect the local authority’s 14–19 collaborative, to make sure your students are being well served by its diploma development programme
  • Despite league table and other external pressures, make deep learning the core purpose – diplomas reflect the best learning pedagogy
  • Make Every Child Matters and personalised learning core to your vision
  • Build a robust diploma staffing structure that will help to recruit and retain the best teachers
  • Give careers education and guidance, enterprise, citizenship and personal, social and moral education as high a profile as curriculum subjects, so that students recognise their value – they can then learn to apply their knowledge and understanding appropriately
  • Start small and think big – move towards the grand plan in realistic yet challenging steps, pushing continually at the edges of current best practice

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