Alison Watson, CEO and founder of Class of Your Own, has been awarded an MBE for her pioneering work in education. By bringing industry leaders in engineering, architecture and construction into a curriculum that gives children and young people a head start in these fields, Alison has changed lives and opened up a world of opportunities, inspiring the next generation of engineers.
Alison created Design Engineer Construct (DEC), a programme of study for secondary age pupils looking for an alternative to traditional classroom learning. Through DEC, pupils work with industry professionals to complete projects that help prepare them for careers in a wide range of design, construction and engineering related fields. Pupils apply core subjects such as Maths, Science and English to real-life contexts and will help pave the way for a future in the built environment industry. Alison’s commitment and enthusiasm for offering children a wider range of world-class opportunities beyond the classroom has been the driving force behind DEC’s success, and we were lucky enough to speak to her about the DEC journey.
What made you realise that there was a need for DEC in schools?
It started with the Building Schools for the Future Programme when I was working as one of the land surveyors. When I visited school sites and set up all the equipment to do the survey, the children had no idea what it was for, but thought it was so cool. They had no idea about surveying, or any other professional jobs in construction, and that’s hardly surprising when the only thing they see is what comes up above the hoardings. They don’t see the people who work behind the scenes, the architects, civil and structural engineers, planning specialists, building services engineers. I realised that construction will only ever be what children can see, and hence, has never really got any further than “a builder.”
STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths related fields) is often thought of in schools as a science, and is mostly lead by science teachers. It’s not seen as the built environment. What STEM needed was to be given context. In fact, when you compare the numeracy of DEC students who have learned maths through the context of STEM and the built environment, their numeracy is often better than those who have not studied DEC.
How does the curriculum work?
DEC is a blended course, a STEM subject that contextualises core subjects such as Maths, Physics andDesign Technology, and thereby improves literacy and numeracy. It starts at KS3 (Year 7 – 9) with drop off points at KS4, where children can earn a qualification equivalent to a GCSE and move into a Level 3 apprenticeship or sixth form, and then again at KS5 where they can earn the equivalent of an A Level and move into a higher or degree apprenticeship or university.
The students work through online workbooks that guide them through the project. Each project across each level promotes sustainable thinking, design engineering and real industry practice, and the children work with leading companies, like an apprenticeship. In our schools, DEC is oversubscribed, which is a nice problem to have!
What was the initial reaction to DEC from schools?
Pretty negative, given that Construction and non-traditional curriculums were (and sadly still are) seen as less academic, and the first thing schools need to know is “Is this going to count towards a GCSE? Will it count towards Progress 8? Where do you pigeonhole it?” The government has worked really hard to change the perception of apprenticeships, but the challenge is to get parents and teachers to see that apprenticeships aren’t just for young people looking for jobs in trade and craft sectors.
What was the biggest challenge faced when starting Class of Your Own?
It was, and always will be, the perception that ‘construction isn’t academic.’ There’s a perception in schools that vocational courses mean that if you’re “not academic,” then girls may be more suited to Childcare or Health and Beauty pathways, and boys to Construction or Motor Vehicle. Teachers and parents aren’t aware of the range of careers in construction: there’s law, accounting and finance jobs, not just bricklaying and scaffolding.
Another issue was and again, still is, the IT provision in schools. Simple things can create barriers, like Youtube videos being made impossible to access due to school firewalls, so enabling teachers and students to access our interactive workbooks can be difficult! Charlie and the team at YUDU were amazing at helping fix these problems when designing the online workbooks, so thankfully we’ve managed to get around this. As to hardware, some of the provision in schools is terrible. Bearing in mind that DEC ensures young people are work ready, technological skills are crucial as they will be using industry modelling, analytical and costing tools, for example. Some of this software requires high standards of hardware, for which schools have little budget and/or understanding.
How have you used technology?
Our pupils are born in a 3D world, but the IT in schools is often not fit for purpose. DEC students use industry standard building design software, giving them a massive head start, whether they go into an industry apprenticeship or university. I’ve talked to many teachers over the years who have had little chance to input in terms of specification and procurement, which can result in schools having technology for the sake of technology, and a disjoint in how it’ll be used, what it’s going to achieve and what investment is needed to achieve it. I’ve seen thousands of pounds of 3D printers, stuck in a corner because teachers need to access software that will not run on low end, mass market computers. DEC uses technology in context: context is everything.
Another way we’ve used technology in our DEC curriculum is through the online workbooks. These are a key part of the project-based learning: children can use these online workbooks at home, where students have access to great educational resources such as Youtube videos, allowing the children to work independently. Rather than paper textbooks, the online workbooks allow children to interact with industry derived built environment resources, and thereby work with accurate information. They are a fantastic resource and the feedback we’ve had from them has been 100% phenomenal!
How have you seen attitudes towards STEM changed in schools since launching DEC?
There’s more awareness around STEM now, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. In fact, schools are talking more about STEAM rather than STEM: the ‘A’ standing for Arts. People forget that there is a huge need for creativity in engineering and construction, and we build that in to DEC wherever we can. We’ve even had pupils doing creative writing about architecture and then rapping it! It just goes to show that no matter what you teach, no matter what you’re interested in, there’s something in DEC for everyone. I’ll be really interested to see what schools do with STEAM in the future.
What changes would you like to see in schools in the future?
Schools need to consider the IT of the future, whereas at the moment they’re still catching up with the IT of the past. IT in schools at the moment is just not fit for purpose. However, that purpose cannot just be about the ebacc, or Progress 8, or GCSE results: these are not the be all and end all. Children need a more holistic experience that provides them with opportunities to develop the skills and behaviours needed in the workplace.
I’d also like to see more training for teachers when it comes to STEAM careers. Unfortunately, teachers themselves often don’t know about the different careers available in construction, architecture, engineering etc, and so aren’t able to advise their pupils and get them excited about the possibilities out there. It’s so important to empower teachers so that they have a broader workplace experience when it comes to STEAM.
If the UK is going to lead the world in tech, we need to start in schools. Schools need to understand industry better, and industry needs to involved with education in a and helping more.
What’s next for Class Of Your Own?
That’s an easy one, because we have lots of exciting developments! We’ve got a virtual reality programme coming out soon called Reconstruct-Ed. This is going to allow learners to virtually visit a building site and interact with it; they’ll be able to do anything that an engineer, architect, surveyor etc could do on a site. We’ve been testing it on the Olympic park and velodrome, and the possibilities are really exciting.
We’ve also been looking at ways we can expand our curriculum. Currently we’re looking at including nuclear engineering and rail projects – anything that the engineers of the future need to be taking the lead on.
What advice would you give to others who want to start a social business in the education sector?
Persevere. Don’t give in. Schools will be resistant, but it’s so worth it.
For Class Of Your Own, we found that the kind of kids who came to us were the ones who were labelled as “naughty” and had very low expectations for their future. They might have felt switched off to education, but by giving them the opportunity to do something “real,” to study STEAM subjects in context and work with professionals within the industry allowed them to thrive. These kinds of projects are so important for facilitating social mobility, and the feedback we’ve had from the companies who’ve worked with us and the children who have studied DEC prove just how worthwhile these kinds of initiatives are. Education is such a difficult area to break into, but you really can change lives.
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