East Durham College’s Technical Academy trio on industrial placements and T-Levels

Jul 13, 2022 | Business

Ron Pawley, Rob Hutchison and Tim Beasley are from The Technical Academy, East Durham College’s education and training facility.

The academy, which is based on Peterlee’s South West Industrial Estate, runs qualifications and training programmes in a range of areas, including engineering, fabrication and welding, mechanical engineering, motor vehicle, electric, plumbing and heating and renewable energy. Here Ron, Rob and Tim tell us more about industrial placements and the Government’s new T Level programme…

EDB: Tell us more about The Technical Academy. RH: The Technical Academy was launched in 2010. It was initially geared towards construction and engineering learning and development, however over the years it has become much more than that and now offers training in a broad range of specialist areas, including welding and fabrication, electric hybrid motor vehicle training, electrical installation, renewable energy (this is a key area of growth for us) and plumbing and heating. Our partners include the Institute of Technology and the North East LEP and thanks to our location on the South West Industrial Estate in Peterlee we have strong connections with local employers.

How we run it is more like a business than a college, it is very industrial, and means we’re ideally placed to prepare young people for the world of industry. Our facilities make it feel like a real-work environment, so when our students come in here, they feel like they’re at work rather than in an educational environment. The facility is 37,000 sq. ft in size and now has nine classrooms. The message from us now is, after a tough couple of years because of Covid, we’re keen to welcome employers to site. We want businesses to come to see our facilities so they can fully understand what we can offer, which is something we weren’t able to do for such a long time.

EDB: Tell us about some of the businesses you currently work with. RH: There are so many, particularly across the East Durham area. There’s the Renewable Energy Network, Baxi, which is one of largest boiler manufacturers in Europe and also a major player in the renewable energy sector), Tolent Group, Bowland Kirkland, CoreHaus, Katmex, Nissan, Caterpillar, D and S Services, Alexander Technologies, NSK and Northumbrian Water. We’re always keen to increase our stakeholder engagement, so would welcome anyone from the area who thinks their business could benefit from an informal chat with us about our students and offering.

EDB: How do students get involved with your facility and qualifications? RP: We promote The Technical Academy at student events in the same way as other colleges do. This is where school leavers have the chance to talk with us and find out more about our courses and qualifications. We are also engaged with schools across County Durham and have a very busy social network with strong links with the local community.

East Durham College has a huge presence in the region and our Houghall campus is the only land-based training college in the North East. It is a real USP for us and helps increase the profile of the college as a whole, including the Technical Academy. Also, East Durham College been consistently rated ‘GOOD’ by OFSTED, with the most recent full inspection being in 2021. Currently The Technical Academy has in excess of 250 students and 30 staff so we’re continually growing in terms of our headcount and expanding our provision.

EDB: There’s a big focus on industrial placements within the business community. Can you explain more about these? TB: The Industrial Placements are focussed on work experience, which sits alongside the qualifications the students are doing. Key to the success of the placements is the academy having strong relationships with local employers. On vocational courses, the placement gives students the chance to gain hands-on experience with a business that is within their chosen subject area. A strong emphasis on employer’s expectations regarding attitude, behaviour and people skills is paramount to their achievement.

Each programme requires completing a minimum of 36 hours of work experience during a year, however most students choose to do more than this as part of the EDF programme, which allows them to undertake extended placement hours. The students get free travel through Arriva, and we give them £5 a day so they have some money to take with them when they’re at work. This all helps make their time with their employer as easy as possible for them.

EDB: From an employer perspective, what’s the benefit in taking a student through the industrial placement programme? RP: Well really, it allows them to ‘try Before you Buy’. They can take someone in without the obligation of paying them as the student’s training is funded through the academy. Yes, they must invest their time but it’s a small sacrifice for them to potentially get an employee at the end of it who has learned skills and gained experience specific to their business. We vet the individuals, so the right person is going to the right employer. We want them to get a job or apprenticeship at the end of it, so the onus is on us to make sure we get the process absolutely right. Throughout the placement we’re in constant dialogue with the employer so if there are any issues or changes that need to be made, we can do that as we go, rather than letting things escalate.

EDB: And what does the student get out of it at the end of the placement? TB: At the very basic end of things, they gain skills that are only obtainable through a real working environment, but more than that they get real work experience which is fantastic for their CV. Ultimately though, our aim is that the young person gets a foot on the ladder into employment or even a job or higher apprenticeship at the end of their industrial placement. The time the students spend on industrial placements also strengthens their pull for employers as it demonstrates that they have worked for nothing and shows they have the right attitude.

EDB: We’re also hearing a lot about T Levels. Can you tell us more about these and is this something The Technical Academy will be offering? RP: T Levels are the Government’s new technical level qualification for post-16 school leavers and will start in September and were designed with the input of employers. They don’t replace A Levels or vocational courses; they complement an alternative A Level route. They are a specific industry technical specialism and have come about because the UK has always had a disconnect between academia and industry and this is the Government’s way of bridging the gap.

T Levels give you the equivalent UCAS points of three A Levels which is perfect for anyone who wants to go down the vocational rather than the academic route, and those who already have an idea of what they want to do in a specific industry. T Level qualifications come with a 45-day mandatory work placement, usually for one day a week for two years with an employer. In Year 2, students will participate in a live employer-led project to further develop their skills, which will hopefully be of benefit to the employer’s business. The Government’s aim is for these employers to then offer advanced apprenticeships once the T Levels have been completed. A normal apprenticeship is four years, however with these T Levels you gain two years towards a Level 4 apprenticeship so if you do undertake this type of qualification afterwards you only have two years left. The appeal of T Levels is that they will give students a natural route in a high-level technical job without having to do years of education.