How leading from the middle can have national impact

Partnerships with employers have been central to our curriculum development and are leading to impact well beyond out locality, explains Chris Fairclough

Partnerships with employers have been central to our curriculum development and are leading to impact well beyond out locality, explains Chris Fairclough

1 May 2023, 5:00

After working in the Nuclear Industry for eight years, I now manage the day-to-day operations at the National College for Nuclear, northern hub building at Lakes College and lead the curriculum team delivering from the facility.

My approach to curriculum design and delivery is informed by both my experience in industry, and the appreciation of what it is like to work while studying for a qualification, as I did for my degree. It is about pace, ensuring students only cover certain content once they are in a position to understand and connect it with what they have already learned. That is achieved with case studies, something that would be far more difficult to do effectively without industry experience.

Our department has developed a range of higher qualifications directly in line with the needs of the employer base in our locality. This was not an easy process. We began by creating sector-specific industrial liaison groups that engaged employers to identify key areas for curriculum development and content.

These groups allowed us to focus on curriculum design and awarding body liaison – in our case with the University of Cumbria – knowing that what we were developing would align with what employers were seeking. Importantly, they continue to meet now that the curriculum is being delivered, helping to maintain an understanding of the industrial context our learners will progress into and identifying up-to-date case studies for use in the classroom and assessments.

In five and a half years, we have gone from having no students and no curriculum to having eight foundation degrees, two higher national diplomas and four honours degree top-ups, all validated by the University of Cumbria. We also deliver 11 higher apprenticeship standards. Of 96 students who have completed full honours degrees, 55 achieved a first, 34 a 2:1 and seven a 2:2. Additionally, 154 students have completed their higher apprenticeship, with a first-time pass rate of 88.46 per cent.

We focus on giving students experiences rather than delivering to them

We attribute these successes to our academic and apprenticeship delivery models, not least our own  ‘NCfN Experiential Learning Model’, built on the original Kolb model, with additions including assessments and a requirement for constant reflection. Our model was developed through research as part of an ‘Outstanding teaching, learning and assessment’ project.

The result is that we can focus on giving students experiences rather than delivering to them. For example, our nuclear behaviour training sets students a week-long scenario in which they take control of an ongoing situation, stabilise and then recover a plant to normal operations. As facilitators, we can change the situation at any moment, affecting how students go about their task.

As part of the experience, we use radio waves to set up a simulated radiological field with which we can replicate different situations. Students gain a better understanding of why they are learning particular things, but also what working in the nuclear industry is like and how they react under pressure.

We also do things differently with our apprenticeships. Our model is based on coaching rather than assessing, with colleagues who, though not qualified in the technical areas they are coaching, are highly qualified and skilled as coaches. They are the main link between the academic team and the employer and pull everything together as a cohesive package.

Crucially, we seek to share our experiences with the sector. This isn’t always straightforward because of our geography, but my 2020 award of a technical teaching fellowship by the Education and Training Foundation and the Royal Commission for the Exhibition in 1851 have changed that. For example, our department is being utilised as case study material in the T level and apprenticeship professional development frameworks.

That collaboration is vital for us and, I believe, for the sector. A professional community allows us to overcome the barriers of location and seed best practice for all learners. More than that, it rightly values the power of classroom practitioners and middle leaders to effect system change.

Find out more about technical teaching communities of practice at

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