Last week I had the chance to visit the JCB Academy in Rocester, on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire border. It opened just 18 months ago with the active support of leading local businesses, like Rolls-Royce, Toyota, Bentley, Network Rail and of course JCB. It is now one of the first two of the government’s new “University Technical Colleges” and has a host of partnering universities including Cambridge, Warwick and Loughborough.
Yet another category of school (to go with academies, community schools, foundation schools and so on) is not something I readily support, but the JCB Academy is rather different. And the thinking behind it is something that I support absolutely wholeheartedly.
For too long engineering and technical careers have been seen as the poor relations, though this attitude seems to be something peculiar to the UK. In most countries aspiring parents would look with equal favour on their children starting careers as a doctor, engineer or lawyer.
All require vocational learning – but I would put the engineer as most progressive. Most doctors and lawyers apply their knowledge to a substantially fixed subject; the human body or the laws of the land. But engineers, not only have to know their subject, but can design, develop and build it anew!
Anyway, back to the JCB Academy…
Engineering businesses have been struggling to recruit suitable people for technical roles. Some vacancies are filled by people from overseas, and others remain unfilled. This is despite the good number of training places that companies like Rolls-Royce and Toyota offer for both graduate intakes and for apprenticeships. There just aren’t enough young people looking to go into engineering careers at 16, 18 or 21. The scope of engineering needs to be promoted earlier.
So when the opportunity to run their own school, with their own curriculum, arose, JCB worked with other local companies to start the JCB Academy. They linked up with a range of universities to develop a purpose-designed curriculum which is validated by exam board OCR. They take pupils from Year 10 (14 year olds).
If I were 14 again, I’d apply to go. If my children weren’t also too old, two of them might well have applied too. The facilities are excellent, and I really like the idea of their engineering diploma.
But the government doesn’t. Or at least Michael Gove, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education, doesn’t. He has just told them that their diploma, which was assessed to be the equivalent of 5 GCSEs (and takes around half their school week to teach) is only worth 1 GCSE. OK, some vocational qualifications aren’t equivalent to even one GCSE, but this isn’t the case here.
The partnering businesses and universities know the value of engineering and the importance of technical education. Partners like these are not going to endorse ‘Mickey Mouse’ qualifications. The OCR Engineering and Business Diplomas they have helped develop are academically rigorous, engage young people – and provide the learning for the next generation of engineering professionals at all levels.
If you, like me, are angry that the government encourages businesses to invest in Academies, and then pulls the rug from under them by devaluing their work, write to Michael Gove and tell him so. His email is michael.gove.mp@ parliament.uk