Career with a challenge

Career with a challenge

Discovery School was set up last September to help address the region’s skills gap. Six months on, Peter Jackson talks to principal Dr Wendy Allen

Dr Wendy Allen’s passion for her new project is obvious. She talks animatedly and enthusiastically about the Discovery School, a place of learning which is new to her and to the North East. She says: “It has been the biggest challenge of my career. I didn’t only take on the headship of a school, I took on the headship of a school that didn’t exist.’’

Discovery is a free school dedicated to preparing young people aged between 14 and 19 from around the North East for highly-skilled jobs in the engineering, manufacturing and science industries.

It is working with a variety of leading businesses from around the region to ensure the curriculum - which concentrates on the Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths - is relevant to employer needs and to enable students to gain hands-on practical experience in the sector.

It opened in the Discovery quarter in the centre of Newcastle in September in a new £9m purpose-built facility, equipped with state-of-the-art labs and workshops. It was set up by NCG, one of the UK’s largest providers of training and skills and the group which runs Newcastle College.

About four years ago NCG identified – from talking to employers and universities – a need for a Stem focused school in the North East. Dr Allen explains: “There aren’t schools within the North East which are delivering things like A-Level engineering or A-Level product design in a state-of-the-art building alongside employers using industrial standard kit.’’

The concept was that the curriculum would be developed by a partnership of educationalists and employers and delivered by educationalists, supported by industry. In its first year Discovery has taken 125 students in total for Year 10, the GCSE year and Year 12, the first A-Level year. It takes from the full ability range from seven local authorities, stipulating only for GCSEs that they have a love of Stem subjects or, for A-Level, that they have the necessary GCSEs.  

“We could have taken more but the view was that it was a manageable number to allow us to deliver the curriculum we wanted to deliver and bring in the staff we wanted to bring in,’’ says Dr Allen. The school has the capacity to take 700 but she regards about 500, or about 125 in each year, as being the ideal, allowing her to know every student.

“I don’t want to grow so big that it becomes impersonal.’’ Out of the 125 initial intake, 22 are girls. Dr Allen says: “I would love more girls. In terms of the percentage, 22 represents a higher percentage than you get, for example, in engineering courses in universities and the percentage of females within the industry is quite low.

As a percentage, ours is quite healthy, but we are very keen to grow that.’’ So far she is more than happy with the progress the school is making. “It has been really successful, it feels like the students have been here forever. I don’t feel like I have students from 50 different schools, all of whom are disparate and don’t know each other.’’

She feels the school is already moving in the direction of what she wants it to become and she grows particularly enthusiastic when she talks about the ethos and vision she has for it.
She explains: “It’s defined by its academic standards and by its warmth and its inclusivity. By academic standards I don’t mean everybody has got be a genius. We challenge students to get the best possible grades they can. It’s about making sure they achieve what they are capable of. Learning is at the heart of what we do and we really push the youngsters on.

“The values in the school are old-fashioned: good manners, punctuality, respect for each other.’’ Where Discovery School is innovative, she says, is the way in which it sets up and delivers its curriculum. “It’s academic but it’s hands-on as well, so students who love learning and knowledge and are then being given the opportunity to apply it really thrives at Discovery School.’’

The school encourages a spirit of charity and community engagement and, although there are currently only 120 students, they have been raising money for several good causes.
“Our classroom doors are open and our staff have been working together and there’s a
real buzz in the school.’’

The students don’t wear uniform but are expected to dress smartly. The school day starts at 8.30am and ends at 4.15pm on three days a week and from 8.30am to 5.15pm on the other two days. On the two longer days, the extra hour is devoted to what the school calls enhancement, enrichment and extension.

Enhancement is when students do what would traditionally be called homework, but is done on site with access to teachers, mentors and equipment. This time can also be used to give extra help to students needing it in certain areas. Extension is where the students are exposed to other areas linked to their curriculum and enrichment is a time for students to pursue hobbies and other activities.

“They work us hard and we work them hard, so there’s a real pace and urgency about what we do,’’ says Dr Allen. “We get to a half term and we are absolutely ready for a holiday but then we come back and our batteries are recharged because it’s such a positive environment to work and learn in.’’

At the Discovery School the students don’t study for vocational qualifications but for GCSEs, AS-Levels and A Levels. “We deliver traditional academic qualifications but we do it in a hands on and more vocational way,’’ explains Dr Allen.

The GCSE students are not restricted to Stem subjects although the core curriculum is English, maths, science and engineering. The school offers eight GSCEs or equivalent. A student’s mix of subjects can include more science or more engineering, depending on their interests. In addition, the students can also choose two out of: electronics; computer science; product design; history; geography; or a foreign language.

Subjects such as history and languages are less popular with Discovery students and costly for the school to provide and, while it has a Spanish class and Spanish teacher, in future, it cannot guarantee to teach any foreign language.

The enrichment period also has a serious purpose and has involved students building a green powered car, while for others it might be taking part in various clubs for science, languages, music or sport or attending a cadet force.

“Our students are interesting young people and they do things,’’ says Dr Allen. “They are  not students who don’t do things beyond the school gates and I think that’s what brings them together as a group of young people as well as they have similar interests, or where they haven’t got similar interests they are respectful of the interests that other people have.

“You might say that some of our students are quite geeky, but we don’t use that term in a derogatory way, we mean that they are interesting. In a bigger school that might go unnoticed or they may not want to share what they are interested in because it might be seen as a bit different. Here, they are all different and their difference brings them together.’’

Discovery School is rooted in employer involvement. It is supported by engineering giant Siemens, Pirimal Healthcare, Egger, Ryder Architecture, Cundall, Liebherr, PDL Solutions, Ubisoft Reflections and domnick hunter. It has also been endorsed by the North East Chamber of Commerce and the North East branch of the manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

On Wednesday afternoons all students take part in an industrial project. Currently they are working with Ryder Architecture and architectural engineers Cundall on a 10 to 12 week project looking at engineering the built environment. All staff and all students are involved, working in teams. Before Christmas they worked on the F1 in Schools Challenge to design a racing car.

“It wasn’t about turning them into motor vehicle engineers,’’ explains Dr Allen. “It was about understanding how you use physics and maths to understand speed and flow and motion. It was about developing business and entrepreneurial skills and marketing skills and then the softer skills around team work, punctuality, resolving conflict and leadership.’’

The intention is to expose students to a wide range of employers in the sector through projects, expert talks, factory visits and to continue to consult employers on their needs and the school’s curriculum.

Recruitment to Year 12 for A-Levels is presumably reasonably straightforward, but how does the school market itself to 14-year-old students and their parents when they are already enrolled at another secondary school elsewhere in the region?

“We market the school – and that’s challenging,’’ she says. “We are taking from right across the North East and we are taking from lots of different schools. All forms of marketing are incredibly expensive and we don’t have a massive budget for that. So we try to get involved in lots of events in the North East, we go to skills fairs and I do an open evening every single Wednesday and I take every opportunity I can to get the word out there. So it’s just dogged determination and sheer hard work. But, it’s really challenging because I know there are youngsters out there who don’t know anything about us.’’

But has it not been a criticism of free schools such as Discovery that they cream students
off from existing secondary schools?

Dr Allen says: “I have had some schools who have encouraged students to come to us because it was the right thing to do. Other schools locally do fantastic jobs, I’m just interested in Discovery School and reaching out to students for whom our curriculum is appropriate, so they are going to be fulfilled and will thrive. They may not achieve any better academically than the school they were in, but, for me, it’s about the journey.’’

She also points out that Discovery takes from the full ability range, from seven separate local authorities and from more than 50 schools, so that only a handful are likely to come from any one school. Is there not a danger that if students come from the four corners of the region they are going to lose touch with friends at home and find it hard to establish new social networks?

“Our students do get together at the weekends, they are used to travelling into Newcastle and they get together in holiday times,’’ says Dr Allen. “There was a real defining moment just before Christmas when a colleague was walking home past Centre for Life and saw about 30 of our students all ice-skating and these were students from completely different backgrounds and completely different academic abilities and they’d only been together 10 weeks at that point.’’

So, if Discovery School is a success, is it a model that could be replicated elsewhere
and could her school be expanded? “I can’t speak for NCG but I know that if this was successful I personally would want to advocate it being replicated elsewhere. We have learned so much from doing this.’’