COYO, securing the industry's future – An interview with Alison Watson

Alison Watson - Managing Director of Design Engineer Construct®

Alison Watson

Alison Watson is a land surveyor and the founder and managing director of social business Class Of Your Own. 

She created the innovative “Design Engineer Construct!” (DEC!) learning programme for secondary school students, which is supported by some of the UK’s leading companies, professional bodies and universities through her ground breaking ‘Adopt A School’ scheme.

Working with Soluis Group, Alison is now codeveloping ‘ReconstructED’, a virtual reality education and training platform, launching later this month. She also leads ‘BIM4Education’, a CITB/NSC Liverpool funded industry and academic collaboration, focused on improving the teaching of Built Environment subjects.

Following our interview with Julian Amey on engineering and its future. We continued this theme by interviewing Alison on what she is doing to improve the skills gap, reduce the risk of people leaving the industry and what others can do to help.

Q) What is COYO and Design Engineer Construct!®?

Alison is a land Surveyor, and the Managing Director of Class Of Your Own Limited (COYO), an organisation she established in 2009 to deliver a 21st century, digital built environment curriculum.

Alison created the innovative Design Engineer Construct! (DEC!) learning programme and accredited qualifications for secondary school students age 11-18, believing there was a gap in the education market that offered clear pathways into technical and professional careers. The DEC! programme is now supported by some of the UK’s leading companies, professional bodies and universities through the ground breaking ‘Adopt A School’ scheme, and has established itself as the curriculum for the BIM generation.

Q) What were the reasons for setting up Design Engineer Construct!®?

In my previous years as a Land Surveyor , I worked on the Labour government’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ (BSF) school building programme, and was involved in a number of student engagement sessions on behalf of contractors. I grew quite frustrated that many of the children I met in schools right across the country had absolutely no idea what a Surveyor was. When I told them that I got into surveying because I really enjoyed maths, and particularly trigonometry, many of them thought I was nuts. It was only when I showed them that the maths of surveying had real purpose and made sense of the stuff they learned in the classroom through some very cool technology.

Sadly however, many of the sessions I got involved in were extremely tokenistic, pretty much amounting to talking to dozens of bored teenagers stuffed in an assembly hall. It was that, or sticking them in PPE, and dragging them around the new school building site to look at how their new building was progressing. It never felt very inspirational, and especially on rainy days!

I had heard that ‘enterprise workshops’ were very popular in secondary schools – typically a challenge where teams of students created something, and pitched its worth to a group of ‘Dragons’ at the end of the day. I figured kids could make a building, taking ownership of some of the key people who contributed to Design Teams. I put pen to paper and drafted the ‘A Class Of Your Own’ one day workshop in an effort to encourage children (and their teachers!) to see an inspirational built environment – where they could become the designers, engineers and construction professionals and create a mini school of their own.

In the days when the government had published a little heard of syllabus around sustainable schools (and indeed there was a National Framework known as the ‘Eight Doorways’), school building design went hand in hand with looking after the environment. Furthermore, BSF schools were designed to be central community hubs. I basically wrapped sustainability, school design and community into a challenge for kids to design an ‘Eco Classroom’ which would teach their local community about living a greener life.

From that one day workshop, teachers and students realised that they could impact the buildings around them, and actually make a huge difference to the built and natural environment. Instead of seeing the old cliche ‘muddy boots and hard hat’ coupled with low achievement, they saw opportunity and aspiration.

The telephone started ringing to ask ‘what else do you do?’, so I figured, if we really wanted our industry to be seen in a different light, it had to be taught differently. No more shoving kids into Construction as a last resort. I wanted Construction to be top of a young person’s careers list. Enter ‘Design Engineer Construct!’ as a full on aspirational curriculum, to be taught in today’s progressive, aspirational secondary schools.

Q) What studies have you published that inspired this?

I’ve written and contributed to a number of articles in the past, including a chapter for John Eynon’s ‘The Construction Manager’s BIM Handbook’ focusing on the modernisation of design technology education and careers advice. Recently, and very appropriately, DEC! featured in the (Mark) Farmer ‘Modernise or Die’ Review. I heard Mark say recently (about industry) ‘We need to feel uncomfortable to unlock transformation for the future.’ I believe the same can be said for education.

Q) What challenges have you come across setting up and running Design Engineer Construct!®?

Lots and lots of challenges, but fortunately I’m an eternal optimist and don’t give in easily!

One of the main issues is that English schools currently have little capacity to look at alternative curriculums because the current education policy around the English Baccalaureate and league tables leaves little room for innovation. However, I do believe this is changing, although I still think the understanding of professionalism and professional careers in Construction could be massively improved, not just in schools, but also in government.

I still hear Ministers talking about British builders being the backbone of society, but this usually digresses into stories of trades and craftsmen. Rightly so, we should champion all sectors, but I seldom hear politicians speak of any great achievements apart from Crossrail and the odd reference to Brunel! For example, I’d like to hear them shout about building services engineers and their impact on global warming (but I guess that’s been swept under the carpet recently too).Design Engineer Construct

Many schools still perceive Construction and Engineering careers are low level and so introduce them to students of low ability, and little has changed in the thirty years since I was sixteen. And then we wonder why we have a skills gap! Until careers in construction are given the respect they deserve, and this takes leadership from the Department of Education, we’ll still have the same problems, and be having the same discussions, in another thirty years.

I’m about to write up a report focusing on a recent trip to South East Asia where developing countries have very few modern resources but a real aspiration to encourage young people into STEM careers, INCLUDING, and even especially, the Built Environment. I’ve never seen so many young boys and girls studying surveying and engineering, and it’s somewhat disheartening to come back home to England, and find that the UK Construction industry is still largely bottom of the pile in the minds of most of our children. But as people who know me know only too well, I won’t give in. Changes are happening, but there’s still a lot of work to do. 


Q) Have you found young people to have a positive response to COYO?

The response from young people has been phenomenal. And from teachers. The organisations that have joined forces to make change through the Adopt a School programme, understand that DEC! is not just a qualification – it’s a whole learning experience, and it starts from before the time children take their GCSE options, giving plenty of time for children to improve not just their knowledge of our industry, but also afford them a real opportunity to understand the application of STEM subjects, and improve their literacy and numeracy.

DEC!, and the approach that schools take to DEC!, is very different, and students as young as 12 are developing technical knowledge, skills and behaviours. By the age of 16, they have portfolios to be proud of, and academics tell me ‘these kids are more advanced at than some of our first year undergraduates!’

Young people are introduced to a broad range of professional occupations, giving them clear choices when they leave sixth form. This could be straight into a Degree Apprenticeship, or a conventional degree. The difference is, DEC! not only has university support, but also the massive official backing of industry. It has UCAS points that will sit nicely alongside Maths and Physics for Engineering and Art and Maths for Architecture, and was also selected by the Digital Engineering Technician Trailblazer Employer Group as a key curriculum for the new apprenticeship.

There’s never been a scheme that has invested so heavily in student and teacher development, and it’s one that could be replicated across so many industries

Q) What successes have you had come out of running the scheme?

Obvious successes are the children coming through to the industry after successfully completing DEC!, and indeed the teachers whose sheer enthusiasm for both the subject and the industry itself is just fantastic, and inspirational in itself.

Our students, their parents and their teachers now see Construction as one of the most high-tech industries in the world and together, we’re driving the UK’s digital capability through the transferable skills that come as a result of the programme. They’re using cutting edge technology to produce smart, sustainable buildings and fully understand that their career choices in Architecture, Engineering and Construction can take them anywhere in the world.

Design Engineer Construct! has grown significantly in the past three academic years, with well over 5000 students studying DEC! at September 2016. DEC! is firmly embedded in the curriculum in over 50 schools, and we will see a further significant increase in the next academic year.

The number of Scottish schools expressing interest and indeed taking up DEC! is increasing dramatically, so much so that it’s clear our next move must be the installation of a dedicated Scottish team.

In February 2016, DEC! Level 1 and 2 was recognised at Level 4 and 6 on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) giving much needed kudos and credibility to the programme. Scotland is firmly committed to ‘Developing the Young Workforce’, a seven-year programme that aims to better prepare children and young people from 3–18 for the world of work, building on the foundations already in place as part of Curriculum for Excellence and reported in the Wood Commission.

DEC! is recognised as a curriculum that fits all the requisites of DYW, bringing real life relevance to learning, linking employers to schools through meaningful engagement, creating diverse pathways into the world of work, supporting teachers own learning and consolidating school and college partnerships.

The Scottish model of education is both inspiring and exciting, and DEC! fits this ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ like a glove. We are working closely with Scottish Futures Trust BIM 4 Academia Group to promote learning within schools as Scotland works towards the implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) to Level 2 by April 2017. DEC! (with the Adopt A School scheme) is recognised by BIM4AG as a programme that illustrates careers in digital construction and STEM disciplines.

In terms of increased industry support, over and above the encouraging growth of the Adopt A School programme, and I have to give huge thanks to the Rumford Club for supporting Nortbury Girls High School here!, we were proud to win the Arup Group hustings in the early part of 2016 after our third year of being put forward by its employees. I really do feel that their adopted DEC! schools are adding to their mantra of ‘making a positive difference in the world’.

As a Land Surveyor, I cannot thank enough Topcon Positioning Systems enough for supporting COYO and DEC! for the fifth year running, but this year has also seen the exciting launch of a dedicated survey training programme for DEC! teachers, aided by a donation of hi-tech equipment that we can distribute to schools. Given that I’ve been part of the development team for the new Geospatial Surveying Trailblazer Apprenticeship, this is wonderful timing!

Gardiner & Theobald carried out their commitment to recruiting DEC! students, employing a Heathcote School student on the newly established Level 3 Surveying Apprenticeship.

Laing O’Rourke set up the Pathways Programme, supporting a 16 year old with a dedicated Digital Engineering work placement for a Salford DEC student. This successful pilot let to the recent recruitment of three more DEC! students to embark on this prestigious day release programme throughout their sixth form study, leading to a full time career within the company.

London Legacy Development Corporation is looking to extend provision of DEC! to all schools across the 2012 Olympics site as a legacy education programme supported by the adoption of schools by consultants and contractors operating on the Park Regeneration project.

In addition, Top legal firm Trowers Hamlin is working with COYO to provide a supplementary Construction Law programme in Procurement Law, which should be released later this year.

All in all, there are too many successes to mention, and forgive me for anyone whom I’ve missed out!

Q) We’re now amid Brexit. Does this hinder or help Design Engineer Construct®?

I believe it helps. If the UK can no longer rely on international recruitment to secure future talent, the construction industry really has to take greater responsibility to ensure it attracts the best talent.

You have to remember, the rise of apprenticeships as a high level route into industry, any industry, means that the race for talent just got even more competitive. We’ve heard for years that City bankers stand on the steps of Universities waiting to grab engineering graduates for their problem solving skills.

Now the problem of attraction and retention just got bigger. With more pathways on offer, young people have never had so many choices. We have to ensure they choose our industry. That’s where true collaboration needs to happen. We need to work together to make this industry the most attractive it’s ever been. Constantly working in silos is not helpful. Brexit should be seen as the best opportunity we’ll ever have to promote British Construction.

Q) Finally, for our readers, how can they get more information and support this successful scheme?

That’s easy. Visit and do get in touch with us to arrange a visit to a local DEC! school. You have to meet DEC! students and teachers to understand the impact you can have through the Adopt A School programme.

As the Rumford Club has proven, you don’t need to be some big multinational to get involved and support the next generation! There’s a place for everyone, and I think the one thing that everyone who supports the programme has in common is an absolute desire to work with young people and show them how much the industry has to offer.

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