As he steps down from his position, Sixth Form Principal Hardip Mothada reflects on his time at Ada.
I consider myself to be a very lucky individual. Not many education professionals get the chance to establish and lead a new sixth form. I've now had the opportunity to do this twice, once at a secondary school in West London, and now at Ada, where we welcomed our first cohort back in September 2016, and our second in 2017. This was no normal sixth form, however; as part of a new FE college, which also had a provision for Apprentices studying for a Foundation Degree in Digital Innovation, we expected to do things differently.
When I met Mark and Tom, the college founders, back in early 2016, it was one of those moments when the stars aligned. I had for the previous two years started to wonder if there was an alternative to university for those students who were not sure that it was the right path for them. In fact, I first came across the college when taking my Year 12 and 13 A Level Computer Science classes on a trip to a jobs fair. I had one particularly talented student who knew he wanted to go straight into work and whilst walking with him around the various stands at the event, we came across Ada. After that initial contact I came across Mark again at an event just a few weeks later, and then within a fortnight an email popped up in my inbox advertising a job at the college that seemed a perfect fit with my interests and values. After interviewing for the post in April, I was delighted to be offered the job and got to work within the week, meeting with Tom to get on with drafting the college calendar, a timetable and plans for student enrolment and staff recruitment. Our students were about to embark on an adventure as digital pioneers at an institution where every single student would study computer science. In time we hoped that we could make a contribution to the talent pool and address the concern that is repeatedly voiced by industry: there are simply not enough young people joining the workforce with relevant technical skills.
My own journey into digital began back in the 1980s when I bought my first computer, the fascinatingly named Dragon 32 (so called because the company that launched it were based in Wales, and the computer itself had a princely 32K of memory). In a world of Sinclair Spectrums and BBC Micros, the Dragon stood out as something a bit different, possessing a 'proper ' keyboard like the BBC, but at a price more at the Spectrum end of the market. A year of hard saving, coupled with a teenage lie for the purpose of match funding from my parents ("it'll help me with my school work"), resulted in my buying the Dragon from Boots the Chemist in Hounslow High Street around my 13th birthday in November 1982. Yes, you read that right, in the early 80s you could buy a computer from Boots and WH Smiths and all sorts of strange places.
As has been well documented since, that early explosion of interest in 'home computers' as they were known at the time, led to the UK being a world leader in the nascent industry of software application development. With few games available, and money in short supply, youngsters learned to code by typing in listings for simple games and utilities printed in magazines. Inevitably mistakes were made in typing in the code, so the program would not work. Correcting these mistakes was my first experience of debugging. Within a short time I could make sense of what the program was doing, and started to write my own. One was published in a magazine, alongside an article I wrote to go with it, for which I was paid £50. I reinvested this money in some software to develop sound effects and a game authoring tool. I developed more sophisticated games, and gained some interest in publishing one from the creator of the game authoring tool. Although this ultimately led nowhere, I eventually went on to develop three commercially successful games. This self taught grounding was later supplemented by software development modules in my degree and masters degree courses. I went on to work for over a decade as a developer, in firms ranging from tiny start-ups to huge corporations.
Having made the decision to become a teacher 15 years ago, I was keen to be able to teach programming. At that time schools that taught computing were a rarity, and it wasn't until I joined a forward thinking secondary school with a thriving sixth form that I had an opportunity to teach the subject at A Level. Later I became one of the first teachers to teach the newly launched GCSE in Computing. I was hoping in my own small way to grow the number of entrants to computing degrees which were seriously in decline at the time. You can imagine how excited I was in the years that followed when students started to get offers to fantastic universities and subsequently began to take up their places at them. But one student made me pause for thought. He went through the process of applying to university, but boldly told me that he was applying for an apprenticeship as well. I was sceptical at the time, and let him know I didn't think it was a good idea. I duly wrote his reference and he later interviewed for, and was offered a place on, a degree apprenticeship as a software developer. When he shared the details with me, that it would involve him being paid a generous starting salary, intensive internal training, and the opportunity to study for a full degree at Aston University, with no debt, I had to revise my prejudiced view.
Which brings us full circle to that initial meeting with Mark and Tom. Here was a college that seemed to be willing to do things differently, recognising the reality that some students were not inclined to go to university if there was a suitable aspirational alternative available. I also shared their belief that education is an engine for social mobility - who wouldn't? The sad observation that few of my GCSE and A Level students were female was something the college wanted to address, along with a recognition that diverse teams make better products and services. For the students who really did want to go to university, a rounded educational experience with top quality teaching rooted in what actually happens in industry would put them in a better position to apply for internships whilst studying, and to gain employment after completing their degrees.
So, in the year and a half since opening, our staff have gone about making this a reality. The key differences between Ada and other providers are our use of projects co-designed with industry, and the use of industry based presenters to deliver guest lectures to make the curriculum come alive. An industry advisory panel meets several times a year to make sure what we plan and deliver is appropriate to the needs of industry - something especially important for our apprentices. 'Rooted in reality' is how we see it, but our teachers ultimately are the ones in control, with full autonomy to plan and deliver lessons and create resources as they see fit. These industry links also benefit the staff in terms of keeping their own subject knowledge up to date. I was lucky enough to spend a day observing user experience testing with a founding partner, and staff induction featured a day for our founding teaching staff at a partner's R&D base learning about Design Thinking. Some of our teaching staff have now also had a chance to teach across the sixth form and foundation degree phases, and I myself enjoyed delivering part of the Advanced Programming module to our first cohort of apprentices.
What else distinguishes Ada from other colleges and sixth forms? Our emphasis on group work and independent learning are certainly not unique to Ada, but our students have truly embraced these and other aspects of our values. The students have always been encouraged to make use of their time outside lessons to work on projects that will extend them. Some students have truly embraced this, with some notable examples being the student that has created his own compiler and another that has built a portfolio of games that have resulted in his winning a place on a prestigious games development course. The most impressive example is the student that taught himself the maths and associated artificial intelligence theory to develop a program that navigates around arbitrary obstacles drawn on a screen. We teach the full spectrum of abilities, so in some ways those students who have less technically accomplished achievements to boast of are just as impressive as their learning curve has been so much steeper.
Unfortunately family circumstances mean I am no longer able to work full time, so I have regretfully had to step down as Principal of the Sixth Form. However we have a saying here - AlwaysAda - a commitment to remain connected to the network of students, staff and partners that make this such a unique institution. I fully intend to live up to the spirit of this, and look forward to following the accomplishments of our students as they venture out into the exciting world of opportunities open to them here in London and beyond.
We here at Ada are grateful to Hardip for his extraordinary dedication to the students, staff, and mission of the College. He will always be a member of the Ada community, but we will miss him and wish him the best for what's next.