Sector - Housing

Alison Watson tackles the skills shortage

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown speaks to Alison Watson, Managing Director and founder of Class Of Your Own Limited – creators of the Design Engineer Construct! (DEC!) programme.

Design Engineer Construct Alison Watson

Design Engineer Construct! is an accredited learning programme for secondary-school age students developed to create and inspire the next generation of Built Environment professionals. Through a project-based approach, DEC! applies pure academic subjects to the latest construction industry practices. The result is young people with real-world practical experience and employability skills.

Could you tell me a little about your background?

I’m a land surveyor first and foremost. But I didn’t find my ideal career until my mid-twenties.

At school, I enjoyed maths. Careers Advisors told me that I should become a maths teacher, which wasn’t for me at all. I wanted to do something interesting with numbers, so after my A levels, I applied to join a bank, and imagined myself crunching numbers and eventually having my own branch. I thought banking was going to be great, but it was the dullest job you could imagine. Lots of sales talk and target hitting, and very little to inspire me.

After six years of banking, the turning point in my life came when I was invited to a nightclub with a friend who was in desperate need of drowning her sorrows following a relationship break up. Within ten minutes, she had disappeared onto the dance floor with a new prospect, and I was left at the bar, wishing I has stayed at home. A chap drifted by and the age old ‘come her often?’ chat up line thankfully turned into a really interesting conversation about his line of work. He was a civil engineer. I didn’t have a clue what that was at the time, but it sounded hugely exciting. We went out for dinner and arranged to meet the following week, but had to cancel as he had to go do and do some ‘setting out’. I had no idea what that was but, assuming he wasn’t just trying to give me the brush off, asked him to take me with him. And that was it – I was smitten. All the maths that I’d enjoyed in school was there on a construction site. I left the bank and started down the road of land surveying and site engineering.

How did ‘Class of Your Own’ come about?

Some years later, I was working on the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme as a project surveyor. My first school started in Hackney around 2004 and I didn’t release that setting up a total station in the middle of a playground would be a magnet to kids.

“Who are you? What’s that? What does it do? Can we have a go?”

Rather than turn them away, I handed the kit over. It occurred to me that engaging young people in technology and showing them the application of the stuff they learned in school could be really good fun – maths wasn’t abstract, it was there on the ground.

I worked a number of workshops in BSF schools, and met lots of kids who’d had very little to do with the ‘builders’ on the site of their new school buildings, and very little understanding of what went on behind the hoardings. I was often asked to present “what is surveying?” as a careers talk to groups of kids, often because I was the only female on site. Some of the stuff I was involved in through the new school build programme was so tokenistic; just touring children around a building site with very little opportunity to follow up in the classroom. I was sure we could do better than this.

In an effort to demonstrate the wealth of technical and professional opportunities in construction, I decided to write a workshop and called it ‘A Class of your Own’. Children took on a variety of roles to work together in teams and design an Eco Classroom – a mini version of their school that embraced environmental principles, energy efficiencies, and most of all, end user engagement and satisfaction.

After delivering a number of workshops with colleagues, it soon became clear that schools really valued the challenge, and especially the students, who got to meet real people from industry. It occurred to me that these students could learn so much more if their teachers could teach a dedicated programme that provided access to a wide range of professions – an actual curriculum that would address the growing skills gap in the built environment.

Over time, the ‘Class of Your Own’ one day workshop became a small project, which then developed into the full ‘Design Engineer Construct!’ (DEC!) learning programme with level 1, 2 and 3 qualifications. DEC! became a became a subject in its own right.

What were the aims of the project?

I think the main aim was to contextualise STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. STEM subjects are generally taught in silos and I wanted to show children and their teachers that STEM – and Art, Geography, English and History! – is EVERYWHERE in the built environment.

We constantly hear people talking about the need for a change in the perception of construction, to raise aspirations and ambitions, but talk is cheap; doing is so much better. Design, Engineer, Construct! is an applied subject with clear academic synergies, and provides young people and their teachers with the skills and knowledge for a 21st century digital industry.

What was the catalyst for the Design Engineer Construct! (DEC!) programme?

The catalyst was my frustration that teachers knew little more than their students when it came to careers. We needed to empower and excite teachers through a robust training programme, and for those new to the subject, access to a network of experienced Design Engineer Construct! teachers. Critically, we needed to ensure that industry professionals worked closely with new teachers offering focused support where skills gaps existed.

Teachers are central figures in children’s lives. Bearing in mind that teachers spend so much time with children, the hope was that teachers would teach DEC! and the children would go home and involve their parents in their homework. They might sit at the dinner table in the evening and discuss what they’d done in the day. Imagine the conversations around 3D modelling, environmental analysis! Parents would begin to understand, through their own children, that the construction industry was a great place to be.

I wanted to make teachers the new champions of the built environment.

Engaging with students through live projects sounds like it would naturally inspire them.  This must be a rewarding experience for all involved?

It’s brilliant. There are now well over 3,000 kids studying ‘Design, Engineer, Construct!’ and I feel like a mum to all of them! We’ve just had the Ugandan School Parabongo Challenge – the four girls who won were just amazing. You can see what it does for them and they just take in their stride. I am in awe of what they can produce.

I used to say land surveying is the best job in the world but it’s not actually! My new job of encouraging children to be the land surveyors (and architects and engineers!) of the future is a truly rewarding experience. I’m 100% fulfilled, high on happiness, all the time.

Has the well-publicised construction industry skill shortage led to an increase of schools looking to offer the DEC! Programme?

Not at all really. Ridiculous, isn’t it? There’s a bigger push in Scotland and Wales to a certain extent because Construction is generally seen as a good industry to aspire to, although I suspect it is still considered trade and craft opportunity. I think the main reason there is an issue in England is because schools are driven by core academic subjects. Children have to study Maths and English – that’s a given and that’s fine. They also have to study humanities, science and language subjects to meet English Baccalaureate targets.

Vocational, or as the government now refers to them, ‘technical and professional’ qualifications, are still seen as non academic in many schools, and as such, subjects such as DEC! can easily be ignored. Essentially, kids can be left with just one option choice from DEC!, Art, Drama, Music, PE, Sport, Design Technology, and a host of other creative and technical subjects.

Although’ Design, Engineer, Construct’! has academic parity, it’s not part of the EBacc. Most schools don’t see the construction industry as a destination for high attainers, and so you lose young people traditional Law, Medicine, Science and Research careers. The construction industry just doesn’t appear on their radar.

I can give you a good example: at my local school, top-achieving children didn’t have a clue that they could be engineers. Their careers advice was limited to a pile of Russell Group University prospectuses. It’s terrible, but unfortunately, the construction industry is at fault as much as the education system, because we never champion what we do.

It frustrates me; I still believe there’s so much more we could do.

The delays in government announcements surrounding the apprenticeship levy are only making things worse. We are saying “Join our industry; be an apprentice; apprenticeships are fantastic for everybody”, and I thoroughly believe they are, yet the fear of the unknown blocks organisations from stepping up to the challenge. Every time you thing you are making progress, you end up taking a step backwards.

Does this mean that the skills shortage will hit infrastructure and housing projects with a lack of people to build them?

Yes, I’m sure it will, especially when schools see bricklaying, plastering and joinery as a job for those who ‘If you can’t do anything else, do that’. We need to champion the fact that bricklayers, plasterers and joiners need maths. Schools admit to sending kids to construction college because they believe they can’t do anything else. I’m quite sure many of these kids are highly capable, they just learn in a different, more practical, way.

Colleges can turn out some wonderful bricklayers who bypassed the school system because they didn’t achieve the grades they wanted. They need ‘functional maths’ – applied maths – but sadly, the general consensus is that applied maths is for people who can’t do pure maths and statistics. It’s bonkers. Absolute bonkers.

Clacton Coastal Academy is in one of the most deprived areas of the country and depravation is also linked to low attainment. Yet CCA is turning out DEC! students who are being offered great jobs with major contractors and consultants. These kids are fantastic and have been given a chance to prove themselves. The school genuinely believes that the construction industry can offer these amazing life chances.

The same is true at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford. Those students, even the ones who attained lower grades in DEC!, chose to come into built environment; going to college to study bricklaying and so on, because they want to become bricklayers. They see the worth, they know they’ll need special skills, especially in numeracy and literacy.

We need to put the message out there that whatever you do in construction, you can have a brilliant career. You can carve out a niche for yourself no matter what your academic ability.

Our government is constantly sending out the message that our country needs to up its game when it comes to raising attainment in numeracy and literacy. Instead of spending so much money on deploying teachers from Singapore I’d love to get Maths teachers into construction for a week to spend time with architects, surveyors, engineers and trade and craft specialists – because the maths they use is just like that taught in British classrooms they teach. I have worked with maths teachers and showed them some of the applications we use on site – most memorably Pythagoras for setting out, and most would love to take the kids out into the fresh air and show them. However, there is not enough time – teachers have to crash through an ever expanding GCSE syllabus and hope they hit their target grades.

I’m not criticising maths teachers; I’m basically saying that when pupils question the use of maths in everyday life, saying ‘I don’t like Maths, it’s boring, I’ll never use it’ etc it would be great to show them applications that bring the subject to life. There’s no better industry than construction for doing that. Think of a school building, a classroom, as a fantastic tool – so many opportunities to use trigonometry and quadratic functions, area, volume….

Do think more could be done to encourage and engage children at primary school age?

Yes, but it’s a tough one. Going around and championing Bob the Builder probably isn’t ideal – we’re simply reinforcing the stereotypical builder. Children at primary school learn how to apply maths in the real world. They have the time to look around them and get to go outside doing practical things and as such, we could do lots to inspire them. It’s too early to say “be a surveyor or an architect” at that age, but we could certainly introduce the skills they need. Using a map and orienteering skills is great – I did a treasure hunt a few years ago with a group of 8 year old Brownies, and they loved the fact they had to orientate themselves with a compass and take a number of ‘giant strides’ (metres!) to find the treasure. Let’s not roll out Bob the Builder, instead let’s think outside the box. It’s just too easy to go into a primary school and say, ‘I’m a builder, this is what I do’ and have a bit of fun with Lego. These kids are playing with Minecraft from a young age! We’re all capable of bringing what we do to a younger age group – a little time and effort can make our jobs really engaging for the children.

Given the reports of underrepresentation of women within the industry, does ‘DEC!’ do anything in particular make the programme more attractive to girls?

I don’t worry about girls coming through because they just do! Girls and boys start off working up a design based on a small school building, but when they get to around 14 years old – a really impressionable age when young people do start to seriously think about their future careers – the brief progresses to designing a building that they believe the community needs.

We find that girls design buildings that mean something to them, such as shopping malls and health centres, equestrian centres and spas. We shouldn’t be concerned with stereotyping – most girls like shopping! And actually, there are just as many shopping malls designed by boys because boys like shopping too. We get a number of football stadiums from the boys, and I know of a boy that is designing a centre for the rehabilitation of returning soldiers.

It’s incredible. Some of the work that these kids do before they are even 16 years old can blow your mind. We simply say to them, “Use your imagination; design what matters to you and your community.”

If a girl wants to design a new Topshop, fine, do it. If you think the community needs a Ralph Lauren shop; justify it and then design it. Whatever building they choose, they are thinking about the end users, services, foundations, environmental efficiencies and a building’s lifecycle.

Would you say there is a ‘point of no return’ in terms of an age where young people will no longer take an interest in STEM?

I don’t think it’s so much to do with interest, but the point of no return comes with the restriction of choices. You can still be interested at 50. The point of no return is when a young person’s choices come more limited. The government goes on about increasing awareness of careers at 16 years of age – that’s too late. Kids don’t wake up on their 16th birthday and suddenly say “I want to be a civil engineer.” It doesn’t happen like that; the seed should be planted well before they take their GCSE options.

Whilst it’s fun to visit primary schools, the serious business begins when kids go into secondary school. When they are choosing their options they are thinking, “Whatever I choose today will affect the rest of my life”. Children have so much angst at this time especially when they’ve had little exposure to really good, reliable careers advice.

Maths and numeracy is still a great problem in our country – we seem to slip down the OECD lists year on year. If they haven’t achieved their Maths GCSE by the time they are 16, some children drop off the radar and can’t see a future for themselves. I just wish that more children could see the value of maths through an applied subject. They would quickly learn not to fear maths when it’s part of a job or environment they want to work in.

Kids are empowered when they know they are using the maths of architects, surveyors, structural engineers. It’s a whole different ball game.

Does the digitalisation of the construction industry with things such as BIM, make DEC! a more attractive option for some students, given similarities with popular video games such as Minecraft?

Massively. It’s funny, I had kids using modelling tools two years before Paul Morrell launched his Level 2 BIM mandate. When it was announced, industry started talking about collaboration and digital engineering. I sat in Paul’s office and told him that I had kids doing the stuff he was talking about and that BIM really needs to be on the government’s agenda to make sure kids are working to the same agenda in schools, albeit at a lesser level, of course.

The reason it’s so easy to work with kids is because they expect to work in teams. They expect to use technology. They go on their smartphones and find some app that enables them to collaborate in real time, and assume that industry is far more advanced then them. There is that expectation from kids that we work in a digital environment and we have to deliver on that.

Is the government being proactive enough in dealing with the skill shortage?

No because, unfortunately, the government only knows what the government knows.

We are so far behind other countries in terms of acknowledging skills. Around the same time as the CBI launched their latest Skills Report last February, some eminent professor from Cambridge, who advises the government on education, said it was preposterous to think that any 16 year old can be work-ready when they leave school. I thought to myself, “These guys should get themselves into a DEC! school – the kids are so work ready.” And they’re being recruited as a direct result of studying DEC!

Take A star DEC! student, Bradley Lees from St Ambrose Barlow RC High School. He was destined for university, but at 16 years old decided to take a technical apprenticeship with Mott MacDonald. His 18 year old work colleagues asked him how come he knew so much ‘stuff’ about the built environment. Bradley had been using Autodesk Revit to work on his buildings and structures for three years, so he was already confident in the digital environment. The ones who came with A levels had no practical application whatsoever. Bradley is a real role model for other kids, but the government is so blinkered with the English Baccalaureate, that kids don’t need creative or technical subjects. I know maths teachers who say they are simply teaching kids to how to pass an exam. There’s no skill involved; a maths exam factory.

I’m genuinely hopeful that Skills Minister Nick Bowles will visit a DEC! school and I think it will be a massive eye opener for him. It’s not just about DEC!, it’s the fact that our teachers are empowered by their industry connections and are showing their students a great way to develop valuable new skills and apply all the STEM subjects.


What kind of support does DEC! receive from the construction industry?

I’m a firm believer that, despite all the STEM and construction ambassadors who go around the country giving careers talks to kids, we can do so much more collectively as an industry to impact their future careers.

There’s now significant support for DEC! in industry, and it all started back in 2013 when Keith Howells, Chairman of Mott MacDonald, agreed to support the first Adopt A School scheme. Some of the UK’s most respected organisations have made DEC! a key part of their social responsibility strategies, and more are coming on board all the time.

I wish it would happen quicker and more often, especially given the number of people who talk about it, but I’m patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and everyone knows I don’t agree with short-termism in our industry when it comes to investment in education and skills. I hope that the recent apprenticeship developments will see companies taking a longer view and looking to schools to develop young talent in the way that other sectors do.


What else does the future hold for Class of Your Own / DEC! ?

There are still loads of things that I want to do. If you imagine a wheel, DEC! is the core subject; the hub in the middle, and I’m developing other specialist programmes that will give DEC! students a chance to study a small project in a discipline that they really enjoy – the spokes so to speak. It will take their knowledge that little bit further because they are interested in it and can see their career path going down a favoured route.

An ambition is to develop a true DEC! teacher training programme and I’m finally talking to academic colleagues to do just that. We’ve had too many enquiries from new and existing teachers who want to teach DEC! to ignore it. I want DEC! teachers to be among the best teachers in the world, whose students remember them as the most inspiring teachers in their schools. For the past year, I’ve been working with some fantastic people, many of them very well known in industry and academic circles, to pull together an extraordinary programme of support. I’m hoping this major collaboration will give built environment education the respect is so desperately needs, bringing a relatively swift solution to the dreadful skills shortage we have.

And when I’m not busy with that, I’m quietly working behind the scenes with some very cool, like-minded people developing a new project to ensure that every child can experience what it’s like to work in our fantastic industry. I’ve been excited about projects before, but this one keeps me awake at night. Just as when I started writing DEC!, the people who matter most are the children who will learn from it, and as such, they are once more my critics. The thought of being accountable to a couple of thousand teenagers…


I cannot wait.


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