Being different, recruiting regionally and the basics of engineering are just a few of the challenges Alex Hayes, Principal of the new University Technical College Norfolk, faces.

You might buy a car or, even, a house off plan, but sending your child to a brand new school? Now, that is a bridge too far for many. And, as is well documented, the history of new school start-ups is a not a very encouraging one. However, it looks like we will start with 225 plus students this September, so we must have done something right! This is how we did and what we need to do better next year:

Unique and proud

UTC Norfolk is unique and clearly differentiated from other schools in the local area. This is our big selling point – unusually for most schools, we don’t claim to be all things to all people. As we grow in numbers, it's going to be tempting to offer more courses and more choice but our challenge is to remain true and not dilute our distinct offer of an integrated education combining academic and technical learning.

Working with local schools

Having worked in the local area for some years, I had a good feel for which schools would see the UTC as a real opportunity for some of their students and which might be concerned about a new school setting up in the area. We are keen to work collaboratively and are working with some local schools and City College to share staff, games facilities and equipment. However, there is more work to be done.

As what we offer is so unique – and only appeals to a small minority of students - geographical proximity appears to play a very small part in students’ decision to come to us. In fact, out of 54 schools in Norfolk, we have students coming from 50 different schools. Therefore, we are only taking a very small number of students from individual institutions. Once local schools understand that, I think that their perception of the threat we pose is greatly diminished. We are sufficiently different not to be any sort of threat to effective schools. If they are doing a good job with their students - and parents - then why would their students leave them?

Talk engineering

A great deal of my time has been spent talking to young people directly and from this I can say that many have a very narrow view of what engineering involves. So often when I speak to young people I need to dispel the myths about what it means to be an engineer. I never cease to be amazed at the fabulous engineering job opportunities that exist in the local area These are meaningful, interesting, well paid opportunities that are light years away from the 1950s engineering stereotypes of oil, grease and huge chunks of steel. However, it’s clear that young people (and parents and advisers) simply don’t realise the range of different roles in engineering. And what you don’t know about isn’t going to become your career choice.

We need to sow the seeds of an engineering career early and well before decision time in Year 9. Therefore, we are going to work with primary schools, firing the interest of students in all things engineering in the summer SATs lull. We hope to work with primary schools to invite their Year 6 students to specially created days that give them a chance to try out being real engineers. For instance, they might design a car from paper which can be ‘fired’ down our 24m racetrack and timed, or have the chance to build an electric go-kart.

Starting early will also, I believe, increase diversity; showing the possibility to girls and students who might have been put-off by that old stereotype.

Get the travel details right

Parents might love the concept of UTCs, but travel arrangements are an issue. UTCs are sub-regional and often span two or three local authorities. This means students can be travelling more than 20 miles to attend the UTC.

Our travel plan needs work. Road and rail links across most of Norfolk are not good and I hadn’t realised quite how long some routes could take. It has been the classic scenario of some locations being geographically near and chronologically distant. I have been amazed that some journeys of 20 miles take 1 hour 40 minutes by public transport! Now that we have an idea of where our students come from, we can work to improve transport links on our key travel corridors. That may mean that we need to run direct bus services to the UTC.

Opening this week

When we open our doors this week, it will be with new staff, new students, new facilities and a new curriculum. However, like every other educational institution, our greatest challenge is to ensure that every young person in our care realises their potential; both academically and, in our case, as an engineer of the future.

University Technical Colleges (UTC) are technical secondary schools for 14-18 year olds. They offer a broad curriculum that combines an academic education with technical and practical learning and are backed by employers and a university.

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