Dr Rona Mackenzie started the year by creating a bucket list of 40 challenges to celebrate her 40th birthday. However, the Principal of the Lincoln University Technical College (UTC) is focused on making sure that her students get the best possible future in business.
With the support of her husband Paul and her three step children, now aged between 21 and 25, Rona has taken on a whole variety of activities from learning how to alpine and cross country ski to giving blood and milking a cow. But her biggest challenge has to be setting up the £7.5 million Lincoln UTC with only a blank canvas to start with.
“One thing that life has taught me is that every time you get an opportunity, you have to have a good look because you can always say no at the end. But if you don’t go through that door and try, you will never know what you missed.”
After graduating at university and training to be a PE teacher at the age of 22, Rona never imagined that she would end up as the Principal at a school specialising in science and engineering. Her career moved quickly and she took on every challenge that she faced along the way.
Rona helped to teach children who had been excluded or were about to be excluded in a mainstream school in Hertfordshire. “I became a head of year in my second year of teaching, then ran a house, then was second in PE and I did all sorts of things.”
When she heard about the new position for Lincoln UTC, Rona was the Deputy Head at North Kesteven School. It was not a challenge that she wanted to miss out on. Although she doubted that she would get an interview, she put in her application and surprised herself as the job was hers.
“This job came up and it was a blank canvas. There was nothing here. There were building designs and an education brief which gave a really good steer for opportunity but I had to make it into a reality. It was a huge challenge and they don’t come along very often.”
Making an impression
As the students bustle from class to class chatting to their friends as they go, it is very apparent that Lincoln UTC is no normal secondary school. As well as being a specialist science and engineering college, Rona has made it a working environment for all of the students, getting rid of the idea of school uniforms and instead having a smart work dress code.
“They wear suits. It is up to them to look appropriately dressed. We don’t have any bells because we don’t have bells in life. They talk to us as adults, some of them call me Rona because they know me, that’s what would happen at work.”
Working from 8.30am to 4.45pm, the students have no need to take homework away with them. “That is a long day for 14 -16 year olds. They travel from across the county. Some of them have an hour and 20 minutes at the start and end of each day.
“They are vey committed. They have made a decision to come here. They have committed to us which is really significant, especially at that age, it is a big step to make and we are committed to them to give them everything that we can.”
Keeping with the theme of a working environment, there has been no need to put the disciplinary procedure into practice. In order to behave like adults, Rona strongly believes that they need to be treated like adults. “It is more about just asking them if they are doing the right thing and asking them what they think that the right thing is to do.
“It would be easy to just bring in lots of detentions and go back to how school is but it’s not what work looks like. It is about bridging that gap.”
Making a name
In order to be able to give the future business stars a fantastic start in the working world, Rona has worked hard to create many partnerships with different companies around the county. Although the school only opened its doors for the first time in September last year, with over £1 million of engineering equipment, the students are able to get hands on experience with the latest machinery.
“It is about making sure that we achieve what we set out to do, giving students the opportunity to be successful in their work or further education careers. A lot of that also involves liaising with other businesses and companies locally, to make sure that they are involved in our students education, so that they are going out to work experience and people are coming in to talk to them. Lots of it is about networking and providing opportunities.”
“The UTC’s are designed to help young people transit into work or further education really seamlessly so they need to understand the workplace. The first thing was making sure that they have opportunities to work with businesses.
“Once we started, the businesses realised how important we were for them because in a year or 18 months time, students will leave us and they will be looking for jobs or looking for university places.”
Rona is now in a position where strong companies across the county are contacting the school asking how they can be involved, offering to come in and speak to the students as well as work experience opportunities. The college now works closely with businesses such as Siemens, Lincoln College and University of Lincoln as well as Branston Potatoes and many more. “Before opening there was lots of support for the UTC and when I got my job, people were saying ‘we would like to be involved.’
“The Royal Airforce do a lot of work with us. They are very keen with us and obviously want to recruit into the airforce. They have supported us with both open days, events and activities.
“They keep coming and coming and coming, which is great, and they all come for different reasons.
“Lots of businesses say that when they take on students, whether that be at apprenticeship level or postgrad, they might have the academic knowledge but they don’t have the skills because they’ve not used the equipment or applied their skills in a practical scenario, and they have to retrain them which wastes time and money.”
The excitement for the UTC will continue as the current accommodation at Chad Varah House is only temporary, with the revamp of Greestone Centre on Lindum Hill already underway and set for completion in July.
The new building is a huge step up. It will be twice the size with solid floors, so that the larger pieces of engineering equipment can be used without damaging the building, giving the students an additional advantage of the additional equipment.
“It is going to be stunning. All of the classrooms will include brand new facilities, teaching walls and equipment. We will be really lucky to be there,” said Rona.
Shaping the future
With the first cohort progressing really well, Rona is looking to be around for women within the science and engineering careers.
“It is always difficult nationally and historically to show young women that science and engineering are great opportunities for them. I don’t know why, because I don’t know anybody who says that you can’t do it. Everybody says that you can!
“We actively promote women in engineering, not instead of men, but as well as men.
“We have 20 really intelligent young women here who are very passionate about what they do and they are driven to be our first 20 female students who will graduate from the UTC. We are constantly going out there to talk to other women and seeing if there are any barriers, or seeing why they think that they might not be able to do it.”
Rona has a simple aim: open the students’ eyes to all of the possibilities ahead of them, and also give them the confidence to go out there and achieve their goals — making sure they have the best start in the business world and really make an impression.
“In any business it is not about one person. In every business it is about everybody.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 20 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.