Though hailed as a unique collaboration between a school and a college to give pupils aged just 14 skills for valuable careers in sought-after professions, Career College North East (CCNE) is far more than that to those who have helped shape it.
The ground-breaking initiative is also the opportunity of a generation to reconfigure links between the future workforce and employers and increase the range of choice for both.
This is being done through a high-quality vocational and academic pathway between South Tyneside College and my school, St Wilfrid’s RC College in South Shields – rated outstanding by Ofsted.
It is, in the words of Alison Maynard, South Tyneside College’s principal, a “grand vision” of skills development.
Career Colleges are a new concept, launched by former education secretary Lord Baker in 2013. They aim to address the growing skills gaps in the UK by offering 14 to 19-year-olds employer-led, industry-focused education alongside their academic studies.
CCNE will join three career colleges already open in the UK – but is the first to bring the expertise of a local school and college together. It is also the first to specialise in the much sought-after skills of advanced manufacturing, engineering and computer science.
As Ms Maynard notes: “We share the same goals and ambitions for our learners, and collaboration is key.
“CCNE has seen two high-performing education institutions come together with a mutual desire to set in motion a really quite unique and outstanding programme of learning that meets an identified and specific need.”
She added: “That we will prepare teenagers who know their career path for the world of work or for higher education is no small ambition.”
The impetus for CCNE began in the autumn of 2013 when South Tyneside College started probing its possibilities in meetings with career college representatives.
Alerted to this development, we at St Wilfrid’s, a 826-pupil school that already enjoyed close links to the college through maths and English support collaborations, registered our interest in being part of any project.
For the school, it was immediately a clear way to innovate to meet the needs of young people by partnering to help them gain Apprenticeships, employment or enter higher education.
We had already worked well together and we could really see the possibilities of doing so again to provide specialised training that we knew didn’t exist elsewhere for a select group of motivated youngsters.
We have shaped it so there is a core curriculum perspective and a core vocational perspective, and obviously working with employers too.
It is designed so that employers will be directly and closely involved in working with the teachers and tutors to develop and shape the curriculum.
It is only by this path that we can ensure our programme gives our young people the training that appeals to employers and can directly help to eradicate a skills gap.
This third element – employers who are supporting CCNE – is crucial in itself. Without the support of local businesses and industry, the vital link between CCNE and those creating employment would be lost.
After all, the curriculum of career colleges is designed in collaboration with employers, for employment, with students getting involved in industry projects and developing enterprise and communication skills to prepare them for work and life.
These carefully designed programmes incorporate core academic elements with highly practical vocational and technical education – it is an education designed to equip young people with the skills to enter a career in a particular industry.
For CCNE, students will start a Level 2 qualification at the age of 14. If they choose to stay in this vocational arena, they will progress to a Level 3 qualification at 16, putting them ahead by a whole two years of others currently entering vocational and technical education.
In practice, and over time, it should help reduce an ever-growing and contentious skills gap, especially in engineering and manufacturing, and bring greater value to vocational education and training.
Equipped with such relevant academic and vocational skills, students can progress onto a higher level Apprenticeship, university or work. Apprenticeship or degree-level education can also be combined with work.
Employers committed to supporting CCNE include engineering giant Siemens, which has an extensive North East workforce, Ford Aerospace, a manufacturer of components for aerospace, defence and associated industries internationally, software development company Nine, and Zenith Recruitment.
Regular face-to-face detailed planning and update meetings have been crucial cornerstones of the collaboration to ensure the programme is right – something that continues to this day – and almost daily contact has been maintained between the school and the college.
Of huge significance to CCNE is the appointment of St Wilfrid’s highly experienced assistant headteacher, Ray Parkinson, as its head. Mr Parkinson, a highly qualified physicist, brings with him a lengthy senior leadership career and experience of computer sciences.
A series of open days at the college and school also tapped into demand. Siemens even opened up its plant in South Tyneside for staff to talk about manufacturing and engineering to potential recruits and their parents.
Just three months after CCNE launched in January, we had received 35 applications from 14-year-olds hoping to be part of this September’s first intake – five more than there are places for.
For us, this is clear evidence that we have tapped into a previously unrecognised and unmet demand for dedicated skills instruction in our three core subjects.
Many elements have combined to develop a curriculum which will be independent of school or college and designed specifically to ensure the students’ two-year programme will meet their needs and those of potential employers.
It is essential that the career college has its own identity – it is neither the college nor school, and we have worked to ensure that is the case.
Yes, a significant proportion of time will be spent at St Wilfrid’s where our core curriculum will be studied, but the career college will be its own students’ group and independent of the school’s pupils.
Its students will have their own distinctive uniforms and be taught in a separate classroom. They will, though, be expected to meet the existing high standards of all our pupils.
As well as its rich academic content, spread over four days a week at St Wilfrid’s, CCNE has been formulated so students enjoy a fifth day at South Tyneside College or with an employer. This shop-floor learning opportunity will come either during holidays or from collapsed tuition weeks, when a day of learning in the college’s workshops and classrooms is instead spent with a supporting employer.
What the collaboration has already achieved is the establishment of interconnected standards procedures to ensure not only the continued smooth running of the project, but the close monitoring of student progress at each and every stage. At its core is the development of computer software that will monitor student progress and interlink it between the college, St Wilfrid’s and employers.
Ms Maynard explained: “At first point, it is vital that we make sure that student progress is connected between the career college’s different partners, be that their academic work at St Wilfrid’s or vocational training at the college or in the workplace.
“We have ensured that there is a system in place that is compatible between us and one which allows us to monitor how well an individual is progressing.
“This clear evidence of best practice also extends to employers who will take students on work experience within their companies.
“We will be able to see it all. It will ensure employers can see how these young people are performing and we can see how they are doing on their work experience.”
Now, as CCNE’s first term draws ever nearer, we remain increasingly convinced that its key motivations are right and that its unique and innovative model sets the standard in targeted instruction in its three target subjects.
We have in place a carefully designed programme. It is one that incorporates core academic learning with highly practical vocational and technical education.
We never doubted that this new model of educational excellence would be met with anything other than enthusiasm by the young people at whom it is aimed.
We have alerted those with a clear grasp of their future career direction, and their parents, to the huge benefits of the career college. We are delighted that the programme we have created has been shown to have such tremendous appeal.
Brendan Tapping is headteacher of St Wilfrid’s RC College in South Shields.
CAPTION: Career collaboration: Students at work in South Tyneside College, which is opening a career college in conjunction with nearby school St Wilfrid’s RC College (Photos: South Tyneside College)