Andrew Wade, senior reporter
We all know that UK STEM is facing a huge skills crisis. According to some reports, the country needs around 100,000 new scientists, engineers and technologists every year until 2020. To achieve this, STEM must draw from the widest possible talent pool, with every boy and girl growing up in the UK made aware of the opportunities available.
For many, though, a career working in certain STEM industries can seem unobtainable. Aviation in particular can be a very alien world, something that others do, and which appears closed off to certain sections of society. But for the past four years The Air League has been challenging those preconceptions through a scholarship programme at the London Gliding Club (LGC) in Dunstable.
Working in partnership with Boeing, British Airways and Linklaters, The Air League has been reaching out to inner city schools across London to provide an introduction to aviation. This year, nine teenagers from across three schools (The John Roan School in Greenwich, Skinners Academy in Hackney, and Kingsdale Foundation School in Dulwich) are taking part, spending two weeks on site in Dunstable. But before gaining their wings, the lucky nine that were chosen had to face a rigorous selection process.
“They go through an assessment day, which is an individual interview,” Boeing’s Katerina Giannini explained. “They have to do a test, a sort of general knowledge test on aviation, and also a team assessment, where they have to take on a challenge like designing a raft, with practical hands on work and negotiation, those sort of things.”
Once they get to the LGC, it’s not quite all fun and frolics. As well as enjoying plenty of airtime, the students are expected to help out around the place, learning how the airfield operates, how the gliders are launched, as well as the etiquette of the sky.
“It’s not just about the gliding,” said Giannini. “They learn about air traffic control and the tower, planning things out and the general rules of aviation. The aim is that all or most of them will be able to fly solo at the end of the two weeks.”
It’s an opportunity that many London teenagers could only dream of. As well as the practical flying skills that are generously passed along by the volunteers at the LGC, the youngsters also develop a raft of soft skills that they may not otherwise acquire. Being taken out of their everyday environments challenges them to grow in a variety of ways, building confidence and broadening horizons.
“We’ve found that with the students from these areas, it’s not a lack of ability, it’s usually just a lack of knowledge in specific areas on how to get a certain job,” said Andy Perkins, a BA pilot and one of The Air League trustees.
“What we want to do is use aviation as the tool to allow them to realise their inner ability. A lot of the students when you first meet them, they struggle to converse with us because we’re not from their world. What we’ve found over the last four years that we’ve been running this scheme, is that by giving the students responsibility, they treat it with the respect it deserves.”
When I visited the LGC on Wednesday, the students were just three days into the course. There was certainly no shortage of confidence on display though, and the pupils from all three schools seemed to be thriving in their new environment. Upon my arrival, I was ferried out to the launch site in a golf cart by two of the boys, one of which was Liam Sealy-Knight from the John Roan School in Greenwich.
“I just feel like it’s been a great experience for me,” he explained. “You don’t just get these opportunities coming to you on a plate. You’ve got to work for it. I want to have a career in aviation, so when the opportunity came I leapt at it, put in the work that needed to be done, and here I am now.”
“So far I’ve been launching aerotow. I’ve been up three times with that. I’ve also coordinated checks, launched gliders off. And today I had three winching sessions.”
Along with the two weeks on site at the gliding club, the nine students also receive a year’s membership for both The Air League and the LGC, encouraging them to continue their journeys in aviation. The project may be small in the grander scheme of things, but it’s an example of the type of approach required to draw new talent into STEM, casting the net far and wide to provide chances to those from all sections of society.
“In South London, young people don’t get that kind of opportunity,” said Jeavon Moo-Young, a learning mentor at Kingsdale Foundation School in Dulwich. “To come and do something like this gives them a very different kind of experience…and they take that with them. Some students last year have gone on to Oxford this year.”
“I usually come back and do up a little synopsis, just to show other young people that it’s possible, all things are possible. If you believe it, and search for it, and understand that things aren’t limited to just everything that you see, then you can think beyond what you can see.”