Meet the engineers of tomorrow from Leeds

Leeds has a rich industrial heritage and now it is home to a new school leading the drive to produce Britain's next generation of engineers. Chris Bond went to find out more.

School Principal Mark Kennedy watches Year 10 mechatronic students build robots.
School Principal Mark Kennedy watches Year 10 mechatronic students build robots.

JOSH Carver may only be 14, but he has big ambitions. “I want to design planes and rockets. It’s what I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid,” he says, enthusiastically.

He’s certainly in the right place. Josh is one of just over 200 students at Leeds UTC (University Technical College) which opened its doors last month. Josh, from Shipley, is impressed by what he’s seen so far. “There’s so much amazing equipment, it’s brilliant just to be here. We had one lathe at my old school and here we’ve got 10.”

And even though he’s only been here a matter of weeks he’s already thinking ahead. “I’m probably going to leave here at 16 and go on to an apprenticeship and because I’ve come here I’ll be more qualified for that apprenticeship,” he says.

Mark Kennedy inside the new Leeds UTC which opened last month. (James Hardisty).

Stevie Dennis is a fellow pupil and one of a small, but growing, number of girls heading down the engineering path. She, too, is excited by the prospect of what she can learn. “I’m really interested in engineering and here you get to assemble things and learn about problem solving and design,” she says. “They’re giving us the kind of lessons that we need to get ahead in this industry.”

It’s an industry she believes is no longer just a male domain. “Engineering is such a vast subject and I think there’s a misconception that it’s just about building cars, but there’s so much more to engineering than people realise.”

Josh and Stevie aren’t only among the first intake of pupils at the new school, they also represent the future of this country’s economy. We have a rich engineering heritage but if we are going to play a long-term role at the forefront of global industry then we’re going to have to improve our manufacturing and engineering output.

Which is where schools like this (there are now 45 UTCs in the UK) can play a crucial role. Despite its name Leeds UTC is a school (rather than a college or university) for 14 to 19 year-olds.

Mark Kennedy inside the new Leeds UTC which opened last month. (James Hardisty).

Its raison d’être is to help develop students who will form the future backbone of industry. To help with this mission they have teamed up with 70 business partners including big names such as Siemens, AGFA, Unilever and AQL, as well as the University of Leeds.

Walking through the front doors of the school building, once part of Braime Pressings Factory, it’s hard not to be impressed by its sleek minimalism. The gleaming work surfaces are certainly nothing like the grubby, graffiti-ridden desks I remember from my school days 30 years ago.

This is a state school with a difference and its Principal, Mark Kennedy, is keen to stress it’s open to pupils from all kinds of backgrounds. “We’re not here to be any sort of elitist organisation,” he says.

All students studying GCSEs are still required to do key subjects, such as English and maths, but where it differs from the curriculum is pupils get to spend a day and a half each week doing engineering. “They get the same core qualifications but on top of that they get engineering qualifications and the experience with industry and universities that you wouldn’t necessarily get in other schools.”

They are able to tap into the knowledge and expertise of the likes of Siemens, whose name is emblazoned on the backs of the pupils’ shirts, and get to work on ‘live’ projects. As well as learning the nuts and bolts of engineering the pupils also get the chance to build robots and pit their wits against their peers in nationwide competitions.

Some of the students will go to university, but up to half will go straight into work or take up advanced apprenticeships. “It’s about opening up those opportunities,” Mark says.

Which is why he believes schools like this are crucial. “If you talk to any employer at the top of their agenda will be the skills gap. Of the 150,000 people working in engineering in the Leeds City Region about 25 per cent of them are aged 55 and above.

“So a quarter of that skilled and experienced workforce is disappearing in the next 10 years. Which is why it’s really important for the industry, not just in our region but across the UK, to have more young people working with employers so that when they finish their education they’re ready to start working.”

The old certainties enjoyed by previous generations of jobs for life have gone. Industries themselves are changing and, in some cases, disappearing, with new ones emerging in their place. This means teenagers today need to be better prepared for the world of work in a way their predecessors perhaps didn’t need to be.

This puts even greater onus on our education system which has been in the spotlight again recently on the back of Theresa May’s plans for a new wave of grammar and selective schools. “There are a lot of changes going on and what we need to be clear about in education is what we’re doing with young people.

“As long as they are being informed well enough about what it is they can do next then I don’t think it matters what type of school they go to,” says Mark. “We’re not the end product, this is just part of the journey towards getting a job as all education should be.”

The focus, though, has shifted in recent years. Tony Blair’s dream of half the country going to university, which was a flagship education policy of his government, put greater emphasis on higher education and effectively put apprenticeships on the back burner.

“At one point we were aiming for 50 per cent of the population going to university. Why do we need that? It was about seven per cent when I went to university which is probably about right. Now we have graduates working in jobs they could have got with GCSEs,” says Mark.

This approach has now changed with schools, employers and government policy makers increasingly looking to harness more vocational training so that people’s skills match the jobs that are out there.

These days engineering is less about grime and elbow grease and more about design and innovation and yet it still has something of an image problem, as Mark concedes, though this is slowly changing.

“We just need our young people to understand what engineering means and where it can lead. It’s not just going to do Leeds City Region a whole lot of good, but the whole of the UK. If we’re going to be independent and become a manufacturing centre for the world now’s the time to do it,” he says.

“If we’re going to continue to generate wealth then we need to be making more things. Engineering is sometimes thought of as arcane, dirty work and it’s really not like that any more. It’s a very design-orientated, white collar industry and it’s about changing people’s perceptions because we’ve got the best minds and the best equipment. We’ve got everything - we just need to start doing it effectively to make sure we get the right young people coming through.”