Supporting the next generation of innovators

Earlier this year, Oxford was named as one of Europe’s top 10 most dynamic cities. As a city and a region we attract talent, we encourage and support innovation and spur productivity. We currently have over 1500high tech firms across a range of technologies. Those firms employ over 53,000 people.  Oxfordshire is home to five high-tech unicorn companies and our tech businesses receive over a £1bn annually in investments.

As Steve mentioned, I was CEO of Oxford Instruments formed in 1961. In that year it was the only university spinout anywhere in the world. At that time, there had been no spin outs from any Universities. OI was the first. Last year OUI (the spinout organisation for Oxford University) alone span out 30 companies from Oxford University. Because of this and other start-ups, our region ranks fifth for innovation out of all European cities.

Oxford contributed £22bn a year to national output and we have the potential to boost the UK economy by up to £180bn by 2030 through transformative technologies such as autonomous vehicles, quantum computers, space and digital health.

We are a world-leading centre for innovation-rich, knowledge intensive businesses and one of the UK’s most significant regions for innovation. But what fuels this remarkable and seemingly unstoppable engine of Innovation? People. We need to ensure there is a pipeline of skilled people at all levels of our businesses to help drive innovation. Therefore, it makes sense that we should be investing in and supporting future generations to sustain our position.

You can’t make people work in the R&D sector. You can’t tell someone to become a statistician, a lab technician or an engineer just because the sector needs them. There has to be something else – a passion, an interest, a spark of enthusiasm for science, technology or engineering, – something that spurs a young person on to make the choice to take a science GCSE or A-level, to try out an apprenticeship, or pursue a university degree.

So how do we get young people to engage with science? What can we all be doing to ignite their interest so that they are open to exploring the STEM subjects?

This was the question asked by the Oxford Trust’s founders, Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood, when they started the Oxford Trust over thirty years ago.  Audrey had been a secondary school governor and she saw first-hand that, due to a combination of uninspired teaching and lack of aspiration in the students, too few students were opting to study science subjects and maths.

Students couldn’t relate what they were learning in the classroom to real world situations.  There appeared to be no passion for the science subjects from teachers or pupils.

Martin and Audrey wanted to change things, to find a way to ignite the students’ interest in science and inspire them to take up STEM subjects at school and explore career opportunities in STEM.

And so the Trust’s early education focus was on giving secondary students opportunities to engage in a more meaningful way with science. This happened in a number of ways, all unique at that time. By creating partnerships between schools and local high-tech businesses students were able to visit R&D facilities, engineering workshops and medical research laboratories. They took part in real-life research and talked to the scientists, technicians and administrators who worked in the industry. They also enjoyed in-school visits from a range of STEM professionals and were encouraged to enter enterprise-themed competitions that encouraged innovative thinking.

Thirty-two years on, the Trust is still providing such opportunities for young people. Its award-winning World of Work programme, which reaches 2000 secondary school students each year, creates links between secondary schools and the world of science-based employment. It provides work experience, placements, business mentors and online support for young people, to help them feel more inspired and engaged with science in school.

The charity works with a range of high-tech companies across the region – companies such as Oxentis, Prodrive, Polar Technology, Lucy Electric and Solid State Logic, who all give up their time to host secondary school visits and work experience placements. These visits allow students to see the real-world applications of the science they learn in class.

Beard Construction are committed to working with local schools to raise awareness of careers in construction and engineering. They’re a about to start a project with a group of Year 9 students from Cheney School (just down the road here) who will be visiting the site to learn about construction methods, sustainability and ecology as part of their design and technology GCSE coursework.

And thanks to partnerships with supporters such as the BucksLEP, OxLEP and the Careers Enterprise Company, the World of Work programme goes from strength to strength and the young people who take part get a lot out of it have got so much out of their visits.

Providing this kind of access to our science and technology firms doesn’t train people to be entrepreneurs or provide direct skills training, but it does encourage school students to engage with STEM subjects in ways that might inspire them to want to do more, giving them the confidence to want to learn more, and to think of a career in science and innovation.

It will sit alongside The Wood Centre for Innovation, which will create much-needed office space for early- stage science and technology companies, capitalising on the proximity to the city’s fastest growing health and data sciences quarter and Oxford Brookes University. The income from the innovation centre will be reinvested in our new education centre and its programmes,making our primary age education facility financially self-sufficient indefinitely.

That was the Oxford Trusts latest initiative. I hope it will provide that vital first inspiring stage of Oxford’s science and innovation pipeline. I’d like to ask that all those of you who are a part of that pipeline, to think about how you can inspire those who will become the next generation of your skilled, creative and inspired workforce.

Jonathan Flint, Trustee
Keynote speech from The Oxford Trust Enterprise Awards, September 2018

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