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Principal of Leigh UTC in Dartford, which opens next month, says it will stop 'pampering' by schools and get young people ready to work

28 August 2014
by Chris Price

Having worked in education for more than 20 years, it is nice to see Leigh UTC principal Steve Leahey can still get excited about a new bit of kit for the classroom.

“It is a 10-ton overhead crane,” said the former construction worker turned teacher, pointing at the giant yellow structure spanning the ceiling of the workshop where pupils will learn practical skills in engineering and computer science, pictured the front cover.

“It can bring in almost any piece of kit and will allow students to access machinery they would never be able to put their hands on elsewhere.

Principal Steve Leahey shows off the huge 10-ton crane at Leigh UTC

Principal Steve Leahey shows off the huge 10-ton crane at Leigh UTC

“We are in talks with multi-national companies about them using this space to demonstrate their machinery.”

At present the college in the Bridge business park in Dartford is still a building site but Mr Leahey insists everything is on track to welcome the first 170-strong cohort of Year 10 and Year 12 students in time for the start of term on September 8.

Once it is fully up and running, creating 50 jobs, about 600 pupils aged 14 to 19 will be taught through their GCSE and A-level years, focusing on computer sciences and engineering but still with core teaching in English, maths and science.

As the construction work furiously continues, a walk around the future classrooms, giant workshop space and iPad dock-laden corridors already offer a glimpse into the not-too-distant future of education – one that industry desperately needs.

Building work at Leigh UTC

Building work at Leigh UTC

How the new Leigh UTC could look

How the new Leigh UTC could look

“There is a frustration from business about the UK churning out students who aren’t ready for work,” said Mr Leahey, who has worked for the Leigh Academies Trust for nine years, the charitable body which runs schools like Longfield Academy and Leigh Academy.

“They are coming out with theoretical knowledge but not the practical skills to go with that.

“Schools won’t get them ready but the UTC will.”

The UTC model intends this to happen by making school more like work. The day runs from 8.30am to 5pm, although pupils will not have to do any homework.

A 40-week school year is broken up into four or five terms.

The building works at Leigh UTC

The building works at Leigh UTC

The open ceiling at Leigh UTC will be used as an educational tool for engineering and construction students

The open ceiling at Leigh UTC will be used as an educational tool for engineering and construction students

This also has the benefit, in theory, of adding the equivalent of a whole extra year’s work for every two years a pupil is in the UTC.

“The school environment pampers pupils with a shorter day to such an extent they are not ready to go into the world of work,” said Mr Leahey.

“The UTCs are a reality check for them.”

There is compelling evidence for UTCs, of which Kent will have three by 2016 – Leigh, Medway UTC opening in September 2015 in the Chatham Docks redevelopment area, and Bromley.

More than two-thirds of British businesses fear that a skills shortage will “slam the brakes” on the UK’s economic recovery according to a survey published this month by the Prince’s Trust youth charity and HSBC bank.

Kitting out the server room at Leigh UTC

Kitting out the server room at Leigh UTC

The 10-ton crane which will lift equipment into the workshop at Leigh UTC

The 10-ton crane which will lift equipment into the workshop at Leigh UTC

Almost three-quarters (73%) of British businesses polled believe a significant skills crisis will hit the UK within the next three years, while 43% predict it will happen in the next 12 months.

“There has been a skills shortage,” said Mr Leahey.

“We are saying to businesses that we are getting students ready for work with the skill sets they have been asking for.”

Every aspect of how Leigh UTC has been constructed is designed to help with the curriculum of its students.

Ceilings have been left uncovered to reveal the workings of air-conditioning systems and lighting.

Building works in the corridors of Leigh UTC

Building works in the corridors of Leigh UTC

Every student will have their own iPad and will be able to link them to screens in glass-ceiling lit corridors where they can share presentations and diagrams.

It has practice server rooms, where pupils can learn how data centres operate.

Biometrics throughout the building mean each pupil will register using fingerprints and pay for their lunch the same way.

“This is how 21st-century IT systems work,” said Mr Leahey, who has been involved since the inception nearly three years ago.

“Students don’t understand that maths, science and engineering are linked so by showing them physically what the theory can achieve can create that link.

Leigh UTC principal Steve Leahey

Leigh UTC principal Steve Leahey

“Something as simple as a window overlooking the science rooms brings engineering and science together.”

Links to local businesses will be the cornerstone at Leigh UTC.

It has already forged links with 25 companies, who will offer either work experience, an apprenticeship or project based learning.

“The school environment pampers pupils with a shorter day to such an extent they are not ready to go into the world of work. The UTCs are a reality check for them...” - Leigh UTC's Steve Leahey

The £12m college is sponsored by Bluewater, Eurostar, Dartford Borough Council, CSB Logistics and Kenard Engineering.

“Education and business need to work more closely,” said Mr Leahey. “If we work together it’s a fabulous relationship that can only benefit the students.

“If a company develops a relationship with a 14-year-old and says ‘look how cool our company is and look at the career prospects you will have if you come and work with us’, that is a fantastic way forward for students in the Dartford area.”

The college will set up its first apprenticeship programme early next year, with engineering and IT its first courses.

The college is in discussions with nine companies about running apprenticeships for them.

Mr Leahey added: “We understand that companies and businesses don’t fully understand the apprenticeship programmes and we want to bring companies to the UTC so we can work with them and find out what their needs are."

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