At Thamesview School, the new construction diploma has proved popular. But it needs industry support to make it work – so it’s just as well we invited a volunteer tutor

In its own small way, Construction Manager has just contributed to the curriculum for the new Construction and Built Environment Diploma. We’ve invited Lucy Jensen, a construction manager with Bovis Lend Lease, to give an informal talk to seven diploma students at Thamesview School in Gravesend, Kent. In the course of an hour, Jensen, who currently works on the Athletes’ Village for the 2012 Olympics, dazzles the group with tales of the logistical challenges at the site, 7.45am meetings and the ins and outs of concrete cladding.

After the talk, the students’ tutor, Anne Schuster, explains that Jensen’s visit is exactly the type of learning experience the diploma students need. ‘I’d have liked 10 Lucys!’ she jokes. ‘I’d have an architect, a QS, a package manager all down here. Part of the diploma way is to bring in experts [to talk to the students]. But if I’d rung up her firm and said “could you send Lucy down for the morning”, I’m sure they’d have said: “Maybe, but how do we cover her job for half a day?”’

Schuster has just summed up the unique attractions of the diploma – and the logistical challenge involved in delivering it. Promoted under the slogan ‘Bringing Learning to Life’, the diploma aims to educate the next generation of construction professionals by taking learning outside the classroom and on to sites, workshops and community projects. Units are taught using real-life case studies, drawings and costings will be borrowed from ongoing projects rather than studied from a text book.

Thamesview, part of a consortium of schools and colleges in the Gravesham area that have pooled their resources to deliver the curriculum, has brokered relationships with construction businesses to help deliver this real-world learning. Contractors Kier, Mansell and Apollo are on board to varying degrees, as are a local architecture firm and planning charity Planning Aid.

But Thamesview’s deputy head Pauline Blayney explains that the links are less structured than they could be. ‘It’s one thing putting it all down on forms, but making it work is another thing,’ she notes. ‘Our biggest problem is employers saying, “what’s in it for us?” I was at meeting last week of teachers involved in the diploma from all over the region, and I wasn’t the one complaining most loudly about it.’

So Thamesview is finding that informal contacts – such as Jensen’s visit – make all the difference. Jensen, an education representative on the CIOB Novus committee, has no problem maintaining the students’ attention as she describes her working day. The students fill pages with notes, and copy her whiteboard sketch of a cladding design change. From time to time, Schuster, a former building surveyor, highlights how the Nottingham Trent graduate’s experience intersects with their classroom learning. In all, it’s a live demonstration of how the diploma works.

The new 14-19 qualification was launched last September, offering a broad-based curriculum – covering everything from plumbing to CAD skills to community consultation – to match the breadth of careers on offer in construction. The diploma also straddles the divide between the vocational and academic paths, with scope for its graduates to take up a university place in architecture, a trainee site manager role with a contractor, or a traditional trade apprenticeship.

The diploma is available through 44 ‘consortia’ – groups of schools and colleges that have pooled teaching resources and facilities such as joinery workshops and CAD suites. In 2009, a second wave of 86 consortia will widen its availability and by 2011 the Department for Education, Families and Schools says there should be full national coverage

So far, around 1,500 students are studying for the diploma, which is available at Foundation, Higher and Advanced level. This represents a shortfall compared to the 4,000 places available, while take-up for next year’s places will not become clear until later this summer. But if Thamesview’s experience is anything to go by, it could be considerable – Blayney says she has three times as many applicants as last year.

The diploma will give them more insight into the different routes they could take

Phil Randall, Kier

The next intake have no doubt been influenced by the positive experiences of this year’s group. So far, their projects include working with Planning Aid to apply CABE’s Design for Life assessment tool to a new housing development in Kent, and collaborating with local primary pupils to design a new 21st century library. They’ve visited the site of a Mansell eco-house in Woking, and followed the progress of the new BSF school Kier is building next door at Thamesview.

These 17-year-old advanced diploma students also have very clear ideas about their careers. James identifies himself as a future QS – ‘I’ve got a good head for figures’, he says – while would-be architect Dexter has recently discovered an interest in construction law. Steve is planning on taking his insights into project management into the RAF, and Connor wants a management training position with a contractor that will allow him to study for a degree as he earns. And in a few years, Bernice could be in Jensen’s shoes – her ambition is to become a construction manager.

It’s a marked contrast with the experience of the preceding generation. Jensen, 23, says she picked her degree course knowing she wanted to work in construction, but little about the roles open to her. ‘It can only be a good thing if the diploma highlights the different opportunities,’ she says. ‘They will see the roles on site, whereas someone on a degree course will only see that on their first placement.’

This is what happened to Phil Randall, 30, a Kier site manager on the BSF project who has been supervising Danny’s work experience. After his grammar school directed him towards a civil engineering degree, his first site experience was working for Kier during his sandwich year. ‘I didn’t have this opportunity when I was their age,’ says Randall. ‘The diploma will give them much more insight into the different routes they could take.’

But all these promising and positive effects could be at risk if Thamesview and other diploma providers struggle to arrange the site, office and studio experiences that are essential to the diploma’s ‘experiential’ learning. While Blayney highlights a degree of reluctance to commit time and resources to the diploma – and local contractor Apollo told CM through its PR firm that it ‘wasn’t deeply involved’ – Mansell’s education liaison officer Fiona Gush describes a lack of forward planning.

‘The difficulties are understandable. If we haven’t got a site available or at the stage they need, it would create a problem,’ she says. ‘We do try to fit round the needs of the schools, but obviously it needs planning in advance.’

Mansell is clearly committed to the diploma, and has established contacts with several other consortia apart from Gravesham. But asked if Mansell’s resources could potentially cover the whole country, Gush is uncertain. ‘To be honest, I haven’t got enough information on what’s planned to be able to answer that.’

Blayney is hoping that a new DfCSF awareness raising campaign among employers will draw in more support, and also has some compelling arguments up her sleeve. ‘A lot of contractors’ staff are quite young, straight out of university, so they gain communication and presentation skills – it’s a two way thing. And when they’re quiet and laying off staff, I still need their expertise [as teachers]. I’ve taken on one person in that situation, and other colleges will need them too.’

Judging from Thamesview’s experience, the diploma has the potential to transform the way we educate the industry’s next generation. ‘What really stood out about this group, and other diploma students I’ve met, is that they really wanted to learn, because they see that it can lead to a career,’ says Jensen. But for students to maintain this view in the future, the diploma needs employers to give them access to workplace experience now. The recession, paradoxically, could create the time and space that allows them to do it.