Although I tend not to use my blog to rhapsodise about how wonderful Loughborough Grammar School is, I have spent several hours in the past week reflecting on the tremendous achievement of David and Sankha. If you have somehow missed this, I should explain that they were awarded the title of Young Engineers of the Year 2017, following their victory at the Big Bang competition at the NEC in Birmingham last Thursday, and have appeared on BBC1, Radio 4 and many other stations besides! Their invention is the Medivest, a piece of wearable technology which, by monitoring heart function and body temperature, can give sufferers from epilepsy up to 8 minutes warning of a seizure.
It is fair to say that the Grammar School has been inundated this week with letters and emails from major players in the field of engineering, alumni and members of the public. In fact, I have wondered on several occasions if the boys now need their own PA! I would like to recognise the exceptional role that Mrs Kaur has played in the boys’ success, acting as facilitator, coach and communications guru. She is now engaged, with the support of a number of colleagues, in helping the boys to plot a path through the minefield of intellectual property and to identify suitable partners in industry, so that their concept can move into the project realisation phase.
I am naturally delighted both about the boys’ achievement and also about the positive national publicity that it has generated for Loughborough Grammar School. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what contributed to their success, so that we can ensure that their triumph is not a one-off for the school.
Clearly the boys’ idea was a good one because it addressed a relatively common medical problem (over 600,000 people in Britain suffer from epilepsy in some form). Their technical scientific knowledge was also important. However, lots of people have good ideas, and thousands of pupils achieve top grades in science. No fewer than 21,000 students entered the Big Bang competition this year, and 6,000 of them were involved in the finals in Birmingham last week, pitching their ideas to judges. So why were 2 LGS boys selected as winners? I’ve concluded that it was communication that has made the difference. The boys were able to deliver a narrative that grabbed the consciousness of judges; Sankha had decided to research the condition after, completely by chance, seeing a member of the public suffer a seizure. The desire of both boys to do something positive to improve the lives of those who suffer from the condition provided a compelling narrative. They then had the skills, as we have seen from their television interviews, to communicate their enthusiasm, determination and empathy.
Surely the desire to make the world a better place is the point of science? This is surely why our government tells us again and again that we need more pupils studying STEM subjects at A Level and beyond? However, it’s not enough just to knuckle down to work at school in these subjects and secure A or A* grades. You must have the communication skills to engage with the outside world, and to apply your scientific knowledge to the betterment of mankind. Scientific researchers, whether in Engineering, Medicine or Physics need to be able to communicate what it is they hope to achieve in order to secure the hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding required to undertake their research projects. Merely having a good idea on paper isn’t sufficient; you have to get those responsible for allocating research funds motivated by your vision and confident in your ability to deliver.
So what does this mean for my son? My message is that we dare not neglect what goes on outside the classroom. It is not enough for LGS boys just to turn up at school at 8.30 each morning, to focus in lessons and then to leave at 4 pm. They may get into a good university, but we are looking to prepare boys for success at 25 or 30, not just at age 18. They need a much broader range of skills and experiences to thrive in their professional lives.
My colleagues put on a huge number of co-curricular and para-academic clubs and activities for boys of all ages and aptitudes. The co-curricular, whether sport, outdoor pursuits or drama, helps to build up the resilience required of a researcher when the first (and second, and third) approach fails. The co-curricular helps to develop teamwork and the ability to communicate. By ‘para-academic’, I mean those activities that are connected to academic classroom-based learning but where the focus is intellectual curiosity rather than just examination success. Unfortunately, GCSE and A Level specifications can be rather limiting. You’ll be aware that new syllabuses have been introduced in the last two years, increasing the content. An unfortunate consequence is that teachers have to prioritise the syllabus content and have a limited opportunity to give boys the freedom to explore the subject in innovative ways. However, in subject societies and para-academic clubs like TeenTech, where Mrs Kaur has had great success with several groups of LGS boys in recent years, there is no syllabus! Boys have the chance to explore personal areas of interest and to combine their knowledge of several academic disciplines.
I’m sorry if my message from the Big Bang success sounds familiar, but I do believe it is worth restating. Lessons alone don’t make a well-rounded young man, even if he achieves a set of top grades. He needs to have a variety of experiences throughout his LGS career so that he will have the skills to apply the knowledge acquired in his study. In Year 7, enthusiastic boys try everything during a whirlwind year, but there is the risk that some boys try to ignore optional activities once they move into the tricky years of adolescence. We must, teachers and parents, encourage them to remain involved so that they can grow into multi-dimensional young men ready to excel in their chosen field.