Developing a ‘two-way street’ partnership between college and industry

Construction and engineering students in a session with Peter Brett Associates

The Technology Faculty at Activate Learning has been working with employers to produce cross-curricular projects with a maths and English focus. It is now working with employers and education providers across the Thames Valley region to develop this work into a road map for employer engagement, endorsed by local enterprise partnerships and other groups, that can be adopted as a model of best practice by other organisations. Activate’s Alice Eardley and Alex Warner explain all.

One area in which we have been developing our work along Teach Too principles is through establishing ‘two-way streets’ – genuine collaboration between the college and employers with which we work. This blog explores a key example ‘two-way street’ collaboration and the mutual benefits that both Activate Learning’s Technology Faculty and Civil Engineering firm Peter Brett Associates (PBA) derive from collaborating on the design and delivery of the English and maths curriculum.

As anyone working in further education is well aware, GCSE English and maths resits present a significant challenge in terms of student motivation and engagement, not least because attainment levels for English sit around 30% nationally, and for maths around 20%. In 2018, national progress rates in these subjects were 0.06 points for English and 0.05 in maths (‘1’ being a full grade improvement). Research shows too, however, that motivation and engagement can be increased if students can see the relevance of what they’re learning.

For two years running, teachers within Activate Learning’s Technology Faculty have worked in collaboration with representatives of Peter Brett Associates to develop projects for level 1, 2, and 3 construction and engineering students that embed literacy and numeracy skills within an exploration of the wider social and environmental contexts of their vocational work.

Working in teams, students are asked to research the need for more housing in Oxfordshire and the constraints affecting its development. They then produce a formal written report arguing for development on a particular site within the county, taking into account social and environmental factors and practical considerations, such as transport links and access to utilities. They then deliver their reports and a formal presentation to representatives from the company.

The benefits for students are clear. Working with the Behavioural Insights Team we assessed student attitudes and motivation at the beginning and end of the project. We found that:

  • Students reported an improvement in their levels of motivation and in their attitudes towards learning.
  • Students were more likely to report wanting to learn things that will help them have a positive impact on the world.
  • Students were more likely to report feeling confident that they can work towards their goals even when they get frustrated.
  • There was a boost in student understanding of the meaningfulness of classroom activities (i.e. they were more likely to say that making changes to a piece of work involved learning how to improve their writing, rather than doing what their teacher told them).

In addition, there was a positive impact on attainment at GCSE. The first year we ran this project, 62% of students achieved a grade ‘C’ in their GCSE. Last year, students made, on average, 0.43 points of progress. Student attendance also improved, which we understand to be a positive measure of their engagement with, and motivation towards, the subject. It would seem that engaging employers in the delivery of GCSE maths and English has a positive impact both on student attitudes towards those subjects and on their results.

Benefits for Employers

Students with Andy Harding of Peter Brett AssociatesThe benefits, however, are not all one way. Generally, employers are very clear that literacy and numeracy skills are high on their list of requirements for new recruits.

Civil engineering firm Peter Brett Associates is no exception to this and sees its contribution to employer projects at Activate Learning as part of the general development of these skills within the construction and engineering workforce. Engineer Andy Harding, who leads on the firm’s project work with the college, lists the specific benefits that PBA and the industry in general gain from doing this work as:

  • contributing to social mobility by enabling a more diverse group of people to enter the workplace, both within the engineering industry and beyond
  • addressing skills gaps within the industry and stimulating graduate and apprentice recruitment
  • stimulating interest in civil engineering and the wider industry, again with a view to increasing diversity within the workplace
  • increasing workplace-focussed skills, such as communication, and helping students to become workplace ready
  • marketing the company’s work and, through this, increasing exposure to, and understanding of, the civil engineering industry.

But, in addition to the broader benefits that the company derives from working on projects with the college, there are also a range of specific benefits for the individuals involved and for the workplace through their professional development. Andy is clear about the benefits derived by PBA staff at different stages in their careers:

  • development of communication skills and confidence, particularly among junior staff members
  • development of target-audience focused communication skills, i.e. making civil engineering work easy for other people to understand
  • evidencing of professional standards necessary for chartership with the Institute of Civil Engineers
    Promotion of PBA
  • reinforcement of knowledge
  • satisfaction and enjoyment derived from helping others and facilitating success.

We are now in the third year of delivering these projects and each year we have been able to develop and refine the work we are doing. The projects have provided a focus for cementing and developing the working partnership between Activate Learning and Peter Brett Associates, which has itself become a model for collaborations between the organisation and other key employers in the local area. The outcome of our Teach Too project will be a guide designed to support other employers and education providers in collaborating on similar interventions.

For further information on Teach Too, visit the ETF website. Contact or to find out more about the work.

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