How do we convince the teachers?

Engineering UK has published its excellent Engineering UK 2012 report, and as is usually the case with these thoroughly comprehensive reports, there is some really good news and some not-so-good news.

Careers advice
89% of STEM teachers see the provision of careers advice as part of their role, but research finds that if they did give careers advice, 21% of STEM teachers saw engineering careers as undesirable. Note – that’s 21% of STEM teachers! Clearly there’s a whole lot of work to be done here to convince them of the desirability of engineering careers.

Employer engagement is now commonplace during education. The overwhelming majority of pupils undertake work placements – usually 2 weeks around the age of 15. This delivers knowledge, access to networks and also guides them in terms of what they can expect in their careers.

Apprenticeships are recognised as being critical to even small businesses
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The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) are preparing a strategy to increase the number of STEM apprenticeships in order to:

  • encourage more employers to engage with apprenticeships
  • ensure there is an appropriate framework to meet current and future demand
  • understand and stimulate the system to deliver STEM apprenticeships
  • work with STEM employers and related parties to increase the number of STEM apprenticeships for SMEs
  • promote career opportunities in STEM-based occupations

And especially good news is that the NAS vision is that by 2020, every employer will value an apprenticeship as the key route to equipping them with the skills they need for their business. And spend on apprenticeships continues to rise. Continue reading

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In theory…

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t many books about learning to ride a bicycle? What is there to explain? Turn the pedals when you want to move; the handlebars are for changing direction; use the back brakes for slowing down. It’s actually a straightforward enough thing to explain, but that’s not how we learn to ride a bike. A book can only explain how to do something; it can’t actually teach you to do it. The only way of learning how to do it is to do it. I know exactly how to play the piano – I understand it in great detail, but I can’t actually play the piano.

James Dyson famously tried 5,127 prototype designs when creating the first cyclone vacuum cleaner. He had taken a look at the maths behind the process and decided that the only way of really understanding it was by doing it, looking at the results, changing something, trying again, and so on. Not every change made a positive difference, of course, and some needed to be reversed. But it was a process of continuous improvement.

On a much bigger scale, and over a considerably longer time period, careers follow the same track – one of continuous improvement – looking at what works, what doesn’t, making changes steadily over time. Graduates and school-leavers are at the start of the process. They know how to be engineers, media analysts, doctors, meteorologists and so on – they just aren’t those things… yet. The only way they will become those things is by practising. There are plenty of doctors – “fully qualified” after intensive (and lengthy) university study – who readily admit to having been utterly terrified by their first contact with real patients, realising that they didn’t really know what they were doing. They knew all the theory, but none of the practice. It reminds me of a great quote (attributed to several people):

“In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.”

If it were simply a matter of knowing “loads of stuff”, we’d be fine with study. But clearly study isn’t enough on its own; we need the practice too. Work experience isn’t just a luxury for the few – it is part of the entire education process itself. It’s what actually qualifies someone to do the job, and to be the engineer, media analyst, doctor or meteorologist.

Funny things, emotions

Last day of term at school today, and all the children in Reception year arrive as they have done every other day this year. The noticeboard is in its usual place, and parents eagerly crowd round to read about what’s on the agenda for the day, relaying the content to the children. Except today it’s different and many parents are taking photos of the board and not managing to read to the end. There isn’t a dry eye to be found, and parents are all quite emotional.
Here’s what it says:

To class
Congratulations on completing your first year at school! Since you joined our class you have made many friends, grown so tall, learned a lot and hopefully had lots of fun along the way. You have been a fantastic class and we are so proud of you all. It is because of you that we really believe we have the best job in the whole wide world. Who else gets a smile and a hug each day? Thank you class for making this year so special! Have a fantastic summer.

Reading it back now, it’s hard to understand why everyone was so emotional.The parents were much more emotional today than on the day the children started at school – their first ever day at school.  Logic and reason would suggest (to me) that their first day at school would be more of a milestone than the last day of their first year.  So maybe it’s not just about milestones.  Maybe it’s more about looking back, and taking a moment to reflect on what we hadn’t noticed every day… our children have indeed grown – physically and emotionally. Just like the proverbial frog in hot water, maybe we just need a milestone to force us to reflect on that personal growth and to marvel at how each person will continue to grow in the coming years.  Perhaps that’s where the emotion was coming from.

Will it make the boat go faster?

Will it make the boat go faster?”  This was the title of a keynote speech I recently attended by international oarsman, and Olympic gold medal winner Ben Hunt-Davis MBE.

By his own admission, Ben’s crew had a poor track record in the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics, and they were not favourites to win a medal in the 8+ races.  The spotlight was firmly focussed on many other medal hopefuls (most notably the coxless four, of Stephen Regrave, Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster).  What we didn’t know at the time was that the entire crew had become dissatisfied with their performance and had decided to do something about it.  Their reward/ work ratio was just not good enough.  International athletes make a massive investment in their time and their personal lives in order to compete at the highest levels, and this all makes a great deal of sense if there are rewards.  But without the rewards – winning medals – it just doesn’t make sense.  It’s absolutely not about taking part.  For these people it is the winning which counts.

The entire crew had had enough, and following the old adage “if you keep doing the same old thing, you’ll keep getting the same old results”, they decided to do something different.  Every element of their training regime was analysed; every personal motive was questioned; every plan was scrutinised, each time answering the same basic question – Will it make the boat go faster?  See more from Ben here and get his excellent book:It is all too easy to lose sight of what’s important in a business, in our everyday lives or in a sporting pursuit – there are so many distractions, little details which throw us off course.  So it is particularly important to keep the original objective in mind.  In the case of Olympic oarsmen, it is clear – it’s making the boat to go as fast as possible.

Many people have used the phrase “No campaign plan survives contact with the enemy”, but Helmuth von Moltke the Elder seems to have a reasonable claim to its origin, so the concept is more than 150 years old. We all know from experience that despite painstaking plans, things derail us, distract us, irritate us and cause us to lose focus. When that happens, we divert energy into the wrong thing, often changing tack completely. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ask ourselves the question “now, where was I?” or “what was I doing?”, before dragging ourselves back onto the original course. It is so much easier if we have a simple objective to focus on: making the boat go faster; selling more icecream; reducing the costs; designing the thinnest phone.

The key is to get the clarity of thought needed in order to distill down what the underlying objective is, so that everyone can keep it in the front of their minds where it can survive contact with the enemy.

In the meantime, read this excellent book by Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge.

An inspiring social enterprise

Whilst recently undertaking some research, I stumbled across an organisation which gave me real encouragement and a feeling of excitement.

The Spring Project is a social enterprise which is making a difference to the lives of students by increasing their employability – something which has never happened to them despite all their years of education.  Here is a perfect example of how small initiatives can grow, widen, expand and gradually touch more and more people – from unemployed students to employers, universities and other partners.  This isn’t some government-led initiative; it’s growing community, run on a self-sustaining, not-for-profit model.

I had the chance to offer some help to a group of graduates who were struggling to get their first step onto the employment ladder; to get “into the system” somehow.  Well-qualified and able people, the one thing they lacked was the know-how to get a job.  Note – not the ability to do the job; the ability to get the job in the first place.  It was refreshing to see how receptive they were to advice, and to see how a change in their mindset could make such a difference.  They were able to understand just how valuable some of their earlier experiences were to potential employers; how some of their skills could transfer neatly into a different industry; how employers don’t just look for a long list of qualifications. Such a shame that they’ve gone through years of education without ever having been shown how important this is, but a relief to see them rejuvenated and re-energised so quickly.  It’s only by initiatives such as The Spring Project that we’re going to be able to make the difference we need.  Government edicts, league tables and pronouncements won’t do it; starting small and growing organically will.

A reminder that there is hope

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making generalisations – we’ve all done that at some point.   But it’s sloppy thinking; often the result of seeing repeated evidence which reinforces a particular view.

Students are lazy, lucky, selfish, broke, wasters, inexperienced and insular.  Those are some of the characteristics of today’s typical students if we believe what we read repeatedly in the press.  Only rarely are we reminded that students don’t always conform to this stereotype.  I recently had the privilege of attending a presentation given by six students from the University of Southampton who gave me a collective poke in the eye when they delivered an inspiring presentation on their SIFE work.  Actually it was more of a punch in the face… a real hard-hitting reminder of what students are like, and what they can do.  Everyone in the audience was already 100% behind students, and none believed the stereotype to be representative.  But everyone in the room was affected in the same way by this inspiring group of young people.

Undergraduates these days face the double challenge of not only completing their studies, but often also earning a part-time wage to offset their living costs, so to see students taking on additional commitments voluntarily is particularly encouraging.
  The group from SIFE Southampton won the UK National Championships and the presentation they delivered so professionally was what they will take to the SIFE World Cup in Washington DC in September.  Even at their young age, they are making a positive difference to the lives of others around the world – voluntarily. They are absolutely not showing any evidence of being lazy, selfish or any of the other characteristics listed in the second paragraph above.  Each of them has massively increased their employability, and prospective employers will be lucky to have them on board.

Some of the Wisemind members

In a brief chat with Jim Ineson (Exceutive Director of SIFE UK) after the event, I suggested to him that he’s got the best job in the world, and he gladly confirmed that to be the case. These students demonstrated what can be done with enthusiasm, motivation, drive and commitment.  They are a credit to the entire student community and a reminder to the rest of us that there is hope.