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Shifting up a gear on gender equality

Gateshead College’s focus on attracting increased numbers of females into the automotive, engineering and manufacturing sectors is getting results. With a record-breaking automotive cohort mirrored by strong progress across other areas, the college is ending industry stereotypes and providing more females with the opportunity to access highly-skilled careers. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Katy Malia, automotive curriculum leader, Charlotte Brass, mechanical engineering teacher, and some of the college’s students, to find out more.


Childhood for Helen Watt and Bobbie Cartmell meant one thing: getting their hands dirty under bonnets and understanding the intricacies of vehicle propulsion.

For Helen, it was rebuilding the engine of the family’s treasured blue Volvo 240 GL estate.

For Bobbie, it was working at a local garage, having found a love for speed through weekends watching Formula One on television with her father.

And the pair have now taken their passion for all things mechanical up a gear, as part of the college’s highest-ever intake of full-time female students on automotive courses. 

The duo are working towards level two light motor vehicle service and repair qualifications at the college’s Team Valley-based Skills Academy for Automotive, Engineering and Manufacturing, and as North East Times arrives at the venue, both Helen and Bobbie are hard at work.

Against a beat of repetitive taps from engine and sheet metal bays, students peer at the innards of a white Nissan Note and black Fiat Cinquecento, the run-arounds raised slightly by blue lifts, while another group sits on the workshop floor, disentangling reams of electrics.

Overseeing things is Katy Malia, the college’s automotive curriculum leader.

Providing support for school-leavers – like Bobbie – to make their way in the sector, Katy also works with more experienced learners wanting to update their skillsets or carve a new venture – like criminology graduate Helen.

The proof is reflected in the smiles on students’ faces, including Helen and Bobbie, who have already mapped out career paths.

“I’ve always loved cars, and I wanted to get myself a qualification to get into the industry,” says 38-year-old Helen, of Rowlands Gill.

“The course here, and the teachers, are fantastic, and my experiences are helping me work on the car I bought when I was 16 – an Austin Mini.

“And I’m also passing down what I learn to my ten-year-old daughter.

“I’d love to set up my own business, and then hand it on to her.”

Bobbie, of Consett, who prior to joining the college gained industry experience at Classic & Retro Autos, based on the outskirts of Langley Park, in County Durham, is equally effusive.

The 16-year-old says: “During school, I was so sure I wanted to be an archaeologist, even though cars had been a large part of my life.

“As a family, we went to a classic car show every year, and my dad would always be watching Formula One.

“When I knew some of my friends had signed up to come to the college, I had a look at the courses too, and I came across the automotive one.

“I said straightaway, ‘that’s what I want to do’,” says Bobbie, who’s potential to make a mark in the automotive sector saw her represent the college at the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Inspiring Females Conference.

 She adds: “I would love to go into rallying, or into Formula One as a pit crew member.”

And Katy – herself a former Gateshead College student, who pivoted from a career in early years education during her late 20s after being encouraged to discover the automotive sector by her tutor – says she is delighted with its progress, particularly the number of females on its courses.

She says: “We have really good numbers, and they are complemented by the automotive sector becoming more inclusive and welcoming.

“Not too long ago, garages and employers were still asking, ‘do you have any lads?’

“But now, it’s, ‘do you have any students?’ – and that change in terminology is great because we have increasing numbers of students that identify as LGBTQ+ too.”

Katy also says she is thrilled at the influence she is able to bestow upon learners to help them secure careers they may have perceived as being out of reach – having once felt that way herself.

She says: “I remember constantly complaining about my car and feeling ripped off.

“So my tutor suggested I do an automotive qualification – at first, I said, ‘girls can’t do that’.

“But she said, ‘yes they can, my daughter’s just completed a mechanical course at Gateshead College’, and that was the start of things for me,” adds Katy, who combined her studies with work at a Washington garage.

 She now guides students through level one to level three diploma qualifications across light motor vehicle service and repair, and motor vehicle body repair and paint refinishing, which each span a year of the curriculum.

Before any practical learning begins, students undergo a skills scan to recognise levels of existing knowledge and place them on the most appropriate course, with Bobbie, for example, joining at level two, thanks to her time with Classic & Retro Autos.

Katy says: “Level one provides a basic understanding of how a car works and what parts are, with level two being more in-depth on how components work.

“Level three is about providing students with skills to narrow down issues to a specialist fault,” says Katy, who adds the college’s cohort includes automotive apprenticeship learners.

Furthermore, Katy says the college works with many partners to provide students with what the college calls education with employment edge, a combination of the highest standards of education with the real-world skills so sought after by employers, which means learners leave with confidence and qualifications.

She adds: “We provide a really diverse range of study points; in the workshop, we have a Fiat Uno, which has a

carburettor, and have a number of more modern cars that have injectors and electronic control units.

“We also have a strong presence across industry, with partnerships alongside organisations such as Beamish Museum, Go North East and Bell Truck and Van, and have just started a venture with a garage that has links in Italy, to brands such as Maserati.

“We’ve got a great platform for learning; many students arrive quite self-conscious and unsure, but by the end of the year, their confidence and can-do attitude have increased so much,” adds Katy, who regularly visits schools – many at primary age level – to introduce children to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The positivity she speaks of is mirrored in the adjoining engineering department at the college.

Headed by mechanical engineering teacher Charlotte Brass, students are taught to solve problems, adapt designs and communicate ideas to support moves into careers across mechanical and electrical, civil and chemical engineering in sectors such as energy, transport, space and construction.

The department has eight females studying for either an apprenticeship or on a full-time study programme. 

Working with South Shields’ Ford Engineering Group, the college offers one-year level one and two sub-diplomas in the Ford Engineering Academy, which pave the way for a one-year engineering technologies level three diploma.

And in September, the college will stand among the first in the country to deliver T Levels, rolling out a two-year T Level in Engineering, a qualification introduced by the Government – and supported by training providers and industry – to match students’ skills with companies’ needs.

Gateshead College’s engineering, manufacturing, processing and control T Level programme will introduce learners to engineering design and fabrication techniques such as computer numerical control (CNC) milling, as well as mechanical engineering theories and other practical skills, with students spending 80 per cent of their time at college and 20 per cent on placements.

At a university level, the college – which works with firms including Prudhoe-based Velvet toilet paper and tissue maker Essity – provides higher national certificate and higher national diploma qualifications in mechanical engineering, electrical electronic engineering and general engineering. 

For part-time adult learners, it offers a City and Guilds 3268 level one metal inert gas MIG welding course, and another in tungsten inert gas.

And Charlotte, who left a CNC job with North Shields’ Chirton Engineering after seven years to teach at Gateshead College, reflects Katy’s buoyant outlook.

Like Katy, she is channelling her time in industry to ensure the next generation – particularly female learners – are without barriers when it comes to making employment progress.

She says: “I had many experiences of men telling me I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman.

“So I came into teaching to show girls they can break the stigma.”

After missing out on the Royal Navy due to a medical condition, Charlotte sought another career, and found inspiration when her school began teaching CNC with a wood router.

And she says being a very visible female in the engineering sector is making a huge difference to female learners decisions to enter the sector.

She says: “One of my students said she wouldn’t have come to college if she didn’t have a female teacher. 

“She didn’t think women did engineering, but she came along to an open event and immediately said she wanted to study here.

“That was great to see, and a real reflection of how things are changing for the better and how we, as a college, are at the forefront of that change.”