Currently reading: Start as you mean to go on: Inside the JCB Academy
The JCB Academy in Staffordshire is a secondary school that focuses on engineering and business. We pay them a visit

It’s a Monday morning sometime in the mid-1970s and a teenaged Colin Goodwin is sat in the back of class dreaming about cars, motorcycles and engines. At the front, the teacher is scribbling French sentences on the blackboard. “Why learn French,” I would have said back then. “Am I ever going to live or work in France?”

My parents spent a lot of money on my education, but for the return they got from it interms of exam results, they would have been better off going to the local greyhound track and blowing the lot. The trouble was that I was interested only in grafting in the subjects that interested me, and that was only English. I got good O-level grades in both literature and language. These subjects make up 50% of my total O-level count.

The tragedy is that I should have been as interested in physics and would have been if someone at the school had had the wit to explain to me that physics played a crucial part in the creation, function and performance of my beloved machines. A visit to the Brabham or Tyrrell Formula 1 teams, which were no more than 10 miles from my school, could have changed my life.

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Forward 45 years and it’s the first lesson of the day on Monday for Year 10 students at the JCB Academy in Rocester, Staffordshire. Their noses aren’t in a Latin textbook, nor are they frantically copying French phrases into an exercise book. They’re instead turning a short bar of aluminium on a lathe. About a dozen pupils, boys and girls, each with their own machine. Their teacher is carefully observing and giving advice on tool positioning and setting up.

I had heard of the JCB Academy but had assumed that it was set up as a training establishment for the JCB factory itself in nearby Uttoxeter. I had also assumed that its students were either apprentices or post-graduates. Then a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from JCB’s press office saying that an ex-engineer at JCB called Bill Turnbull had recently passed away and donated to the Academy some of the proceeds from the sale of a Bugatti Type 57 that he had restored. From the press release, it was clear that my assumptions about the Academy were wrong.

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First, the Academy takes in kids (they’re referred to as ‘learners’ by the staff) from Year 10 (ages 14 and 15). I’m sitting in front of the principal, Jenny McGuirk, who is a physics teacher by trade. “The Academy was established in 2010,” she explains, “and is focused on engineering and business. We have a totally modern approach to education at the Academy, with hours that are more like those in a business, rather than a school, and our curriculum is quite different. There’s no history or geography, for example, although those subjects will be touched upon if they’re relevant. What we do have are options that learners can take up. Modern languages, for example, or product design.”

Product design? That sounds rather more interesting than religious knowledge. But then the real bombshell is dropped. Tom Greene, the vice-principal, is giving us a tour and tells me that it’s possible for the learners to take an option that increases their work in what’s known as the lathe and fitting room. “Normally they spend about four hours every fortnight on the lathes,” explains the ex-Irish Army engineering officer, “but this is extended to 10 hours if they take this option.” Sign me up for that, please, sir.

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The Academy has around 600 pupils (80% are boys) split into three houses. The houses at my school were imaginatively named North, South, East and West, because of their orientation. At the JCB Academy, they’re called Royce, Bamford and Arkwright. The relevance of all are obvious, but Arkwright is particularly interesting, because the Academy is located in an old mill founded by Richard Arkwright.

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The Academy also takes in apprentices from JCB as well as other local engineering companies. A less visionary proprietor than Lord Bamford could have made the Academy into a sort of JCB Land, but in practice, the establishment is also sponsored by a multitude of well-known engineering names, such as Bentley, Toyota and Rolls-Royce (the aerospace company, not the unrelated car maker).

Some Year 11s are on a break between classes and have time for a chat. They’re a very inspiring bunch and, as I had hoped, all are interested in engineering. “My dad works at Rolls-Royce,” says Heidi Banton, “so engineering is in the family.” Next to her is Jen Dainty, who is also passionate about engineering in a very specific area: “I’d like to get into medical engineering and prosthetics.”

Any petrolheads? “My goal,” says Ethan Cobley, “is to move into motorsport engineering.” Obviously I can’t lay all blame on my lack of direction on my school, but as many of my generation will agree, career guidance was a bit lacking. What really strikes me about the Academy – and the kids back this up – is that everywhere you look, there’s a link between education and the mind of 14-year-old Goodwin. The business side of the learning at the Academy might not have held too great appeal for me, but it’s extremely practical and relevant. “We’re taught about things like tax, accounting and all sorts of other things that willhelp us in our personal lives and if we wanted to start our own businesses,” a youngster tells me.

But what impresses me the most about the Academy is the value put on practical skills. On its website, there are testimonials from ex-pupils that include one who after the Academy enrolled at The Welding Institute at Cambridge. Only an engineering-focused educational establishment like the Academy would be proud to flag up that one of its pupils had gone onto one of the country’s most respected engineering centres. My teachers would have thought it was a place you went to learn how to replace the sills on a Mk2 Ford Escort.

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There are uniforms and discipline at the Academy, plus a few other things that I wasn’t a fan of when young, but those inconveniences would have been overridden by the pleasure I would have got from the practical side of the curriculum.

It has been an emotional day out. Life turned out well for me, but less would have been left to chance had I gone to a place like the JCB Academy. For the first time in my life, I’ve envied people at school.

Q&A: Lord Bamford

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Can you weld? 

“I did an apprenticeship aged 17 that included all the skills including welding, turning and milling. It was actually in France, so I was also fairly fluent in mechanics’ French. It has been decades since I’ve done any welding, so I’m probably rather rusty.”

What inspired you to found the JCB Academy?

“We were suffering from a shortage of engineers and it irritated me that people would go up to Cambridge and get an engineering degree and then wind up in the City. It was clear that to really change things, we would have to inspire people about engineering when they were young.”

How often do you visit the Academy? 

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"Not as often as I should and would like to. About every few months. Sometimes they come to see me. I was much more involved at the beginning.”

Have you thought about opening a similar Academy elsewhere? Say, in Sunderland?

“That would be good, but really my job is to continue developing equipment, manufacturing it and selling it on a global basis.”

Are you involved in JCB's work on hydrogen?

“Absolutely. I strongly believe that hydrogen is a fuel for the future. My great fear is that piston and internal combustion engines will be banned. We need to change the fuel, not the machine itself. At the moment, we need chemists and metallurgists to come work with us. If you know any who would relish the challenge, ask them to get in touch.”

Join the debate

Add a comment…
streaky 30 October 2021

I wish I was aware of such opportunities back in the 70s, if they existed.  I would have gone down that route rather than drifting aimlessly to university not knowing what I wanted to do afterwards.

Symanski 30 October 2021

Vocational studies is definitely something that has been overlooked because politicians like to hear of people studying at university rather than FE colleges.   It's a disservice to many of our youth, and indeed to the colleges too.   They should be filling the gap between unskilled jobs and those at university by teaching these skills.   Skills to make and build things.


Sadly, there's been so much de-industralisation in areas where I live that I wouldn't even advise anybody to do such.   I know engineering companies are screaming out for trained CNC operators, trying to train people up too who want to learn, but trying to find young people interested is extremely difficult.   The gap between how few engineering companies that are left and how many new students you'd need to make a course viable to run is the problem.



xxxx 30 October 2021

There's always one or two remoaners willing to spoil a good news story offering hope, good on him I say

Symanski 30 October 2021

It's a great story, just like those mill owners building towns for their workers or pit owners...


Symanski 30 October 2021

There's definitely a shortage of CNC operators and before Brexit we were getting more and more of them in from the EU.   Now of course they've gone home because people like Bamford told them to F' off.


Brexiters like him have done huge damage to the UK.


As for training new operators, the problems go back to the schools.   We're telling kids that they'll go to university and do media studies or politics.   Whereas we should be getting many of them the skills to become technicians able to operate CNC machines.   Even those going to university are doing studies which we generally have no urgent need for.   If you wanted to make a difference and encourage people in to engineering then reduce the fees to study essential subjects and increase it on the subjects we have too many unable to find jobs in those vocations!


scotty5 30 October 2021

 We're telling kids that they'll go to university and do media studies or politics.

Fake news is becoming so bad on here. Who exactly is saying that and can you give us some examples?

I just can't work out your thinking. You want to invest in training yet at the same time allow a system which allows the employment of people who already poses those skills from other EU countries? Moreover people who're willing to work on a temporary basis for less money?

You're right, we encourage 50% of young adults to go to university but it's not them we're bothered about, it's the others, it's the 50% you haven't mentioned that worries me. The majority of them could look forward to a career in unskilled work because skills were being brought in thru an open door. Have you ever considered that's why Brexit was popular?

Hopefully more employers will think like JCB.

Symanski 30 October 2021

Talk to the academics in universities, especially those who have seen their engineering departments decimated over that time.   Yet there's a huge influx of students in lighter subjects.


Funny too that over the last couple of months it has become clear that Britian benefited from EU workers coming to the UK so much they are desperate for them to return and pick our fruit and veg, then drive HGVs taking produce to the supermarkets.   It seems Brexiters don't want to do those jobs they claimed were stolen from them!


Part of that 50% you quote being talked in to going to university really need to be talked in to doing other subjects, such as the CNC operators positions.   That the colleges should be teaching as part of modern apprenticeships.


Taking away our youth's futures with Brexit isn't going to solve anything.   People like Bamford are insulated from this, yet ironically love to go to their Chateaus in France (I believe the wine he produces at his Chateau is excellent), but not for our youth to enjoy the same freedoms of movement.