Go On Girl: Stansted Airport College helping girls' careers in engineering to take off
Girls outperform boys in all STEM A Levels except chemistry, yet the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.
At Stansted Airport College, a trailblazing group of young women are determined to reverse that sex inequality.
The offshoot of Harlow College, dedicated to preparing its students for an aviation career, is ramping up its Go On Girl campaign to train the next generation of engineers with a female-only course.
The teenagers are taught by Kimi Alderton, who honed her skills in her home country of Japan with All Nippon Airways and was in the vanguard of women qualified to sign off its jets.
Deputy head Victoria Clayden-Smith said that like the majority of the college's tutors, Kimi had been lured from industry to give students a benchmark for attainment beyond the classroom.
She explained the genesis of Go On Girl: "We launched the campaign in 2018 because although we did have some girls, what we wanted to do was grow that. Girls need a bit of extra help if they're going into a predominantly male environment."
She said the college's partners like Ryanair had made it clear there was a demand for female trainees.
"Women are more creative, solution-focused and good at prioritising and communicating."
Health and safety advances mean that heavy lifting, which requires more physical strength, is a thing of the past.
Victoria said the college was committed to supporting any girls who want to make engineering their career. Currently, there are around 150 males and eight females on its courses.
According to the Engineering UK 2018 report, 12.37% of all UK engineers are women.
Yet in all STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) A Levels except chemistry, more girls get A*-C grades than boys – including maths, further maths, ICT (information and communications technology) and design and technology.
While girls and women make up less than 18% of higher apprentices in engineering and manufacturing, and 7.4% of all engineering apprentices, 79.8% of female engineering students get a first or upper second, compared to 74.6% of male students.
"We've had a challenge with Covid – I spent a lot of time [before] going around schools and encouraging girls to come into engineering," said Victoria.
"Being there in person and taking female engineers along to talk to them does have a big impact on the decision they take when they finish their GCSEs."
Despite the current slump in demand for air travel, prospects for new recruits remain positive, with many aviation companies looking to a new generation to bolster an ageing workforce.
Former Birchwood High School student Alice Gor, who loved design technology classes at the Parsonage Lane secondary, is enrolled on the pre-apprenticeship in engineering operations course.
Its curriculum is designed to give a solid knowledge base and develop essential hand skills so students can progress onto an apprenticeship or a higher level of study in either operations and maintenance or aircraft maintenance.
Alice, 16, said: "I like taking things apart and putting them back together and finding out how they work." Previously that meant dismantling old laptops, but now she is working on jets.
Brought up with two brothers, she said she was not intimidated by working in a male-dominated environment.
"I know that the abilities I have mean I'm better at some things than the boys. We do have slightly different skill sets.
"I most definitely feel I have a point to prove, proving people wrong, proving females and females of colour can do this."
Alice is used to defying convention. She began playing football in Year 4 of primary school and has played for Bishop's Stortford since she was in her first year at Birchwood and then took a leadership role in encouraging younger children to embrace sport.
She is now the goalkeeper for Bishop's Stortford Ladies and was offered a place at the F2 Academy, a full-time football and education scholarship academy, before deciding to pursue engineering.
She said: "I will always try and make my own path. If you follow the herd, you end up doing what everyone expects you to do and not what you want to do."
Tigan Crisp is from Chelmsford and went to the city's Boswells School, where she was expected to take A Levels. The 17-year-old is now in the second year of a Level 3 course extended diploma in aeronautical engineering.
She said she got into engineering when she was 13 after completing a course of test sessions with the Royal Institution of Great Britain, an organisation for scientific education and research founded in 1799 and based in the City of Westminster. The last was about aeronautics.
"I left that session and said 'Now I know what I want to do'."
Tigan said she had never regretted her choice to study at the airport college – "even when I'm waiting for my bus at 6.30 in the morning" – and she has already secured a degree apprenticeship with Leonardo in Basildon.
From September, she will be learning systems engineering with one of the country's leading aerospace companies and one of the biggest suppliers of defence and security equipment to the Ministry of Defence.
Classmate Thianna-May Campbell, from Greenwich, south-east London, was so keen to work in aviation that she was prepared to move to Leeds to study before Stansted Airport College opened closer to home.
She has dreamed of being a pilot since she was four and ultimately still hopes to win her wings. She switched from studying aviation operation to engineering because she was not learning enough about the aircraft she aims to fly one day.
She said: "There are not many BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people let alone BAME women in engineering, but nothing is going to stop me."