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Limit Less: Jamie’s story

Jamie left school at 16 to take on an apprenticeship at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Two years on, he’s just won IOP’s first ever Apprentice Award. Here he explains why he thinks teachers and parents need to take the apprenticeship route more seriously – and why even for very academic students the classroom isn’t always the best learning environment.

What was school like for you?

Very early on, pre-reception, my mum put in a lot of hours tutoring me for English. My granddad was also fantastic, teaching me how to build things in his workshop. I was very fortunate that I had people helping me.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised I had dyslexia. Because of the support I’d had from my family, it didn’t really present itself until the lead up to my GCSEs. It turned out I was someone with neural diversity – someone who learns by doing – and so a classroom environment wasn’t necessarily the best fit for me.

Nonetheless, because of the support I’d had, I came out with five A*s at GCSE, so I could have stayed at school, done A-levels and gone to university. But I’d had to work very hard, and in an exam situation I would make numerous silly mistakes and rarely finish a paper. As a result, my grades didn’t necessarily reflect my understanding. Everything would just take me longer – I rarely finished an exam. Dyslexic people supposedly use more of the mind simultaneously, so our brains are inefficient – but very creative.

I was lucky to have lots of help at home, but I think many neuro-diverse people aren’t comfortable at school because a classroom just isn’t the right learning environment for them.

What made you consider the apprenticeship route?

I grew up with a girl who followed the apprenticeship path, who has been hugely successful and is a massive advocate of this route. When I hit year nine, she’d just started her apprenticeship at NPL and was telling me all these amazing things she was doing. It was inspiring. I wanted to get a taste of the NPL apprentice lifestyle and completed the Labtastic summer camp, as well as work experience in the engineering workshop. It felt like my mind had been woken up, and I knew the apprenticeship was where I wanted to go.

Was the school supportive?

My school was next to a council estate and it wasn’t very well funded. The apprentice route was already quite prominent for the less academic side of the school, but this sort of apprenticeship was something different. My teachers were very supportive, and quite excited, but they didn’t really know much about physics apprenticeships. I don’t think many people do.

And what about your family?

My mum comes from a military and farming family and she was taught to become a secretary. She thinks if she’d been given a different message growing up, she might have gone further in aviation and perhaps become a pilot. She’s very aware of how not having a university education can hold someone back, so she was cautious at first – but she now actively says that it was the right decision.

The thing is, I think I will end up going for a degree at some point, but for me this is about slowing the process down, making a difference and having a tangible motivator while progressing through academia.

Jamie presents his work to an audience during his apprenticeship

What have you been working on recently?

Well, lots! But I think this is an interesting one: when the pandemic first kicked off, the first thing that jumped out at me was the idea of antiviral surfaces. So, I did a lot of reading in my spare time on these surfaces and how they could help kill Coronavirus (Covid-19). Some things occurred to me that didn’t seem to be being explored – like how does the wear of antiviral surfaces affect its antiviral properties?

I asked NPL if it was something we could explore – and they said yes. This has created a customer job with a new client for the company. I’ve come up with about 20 ideas for how we could implement antiviral solutions, and it’s helped to raise my profile in the company. I won an internal award for it.

I also got to work on the production of face masks for NHS frontline workers, 3D printing Andy Morris’ MBE (Head of Operations for NPL North) CE-certified design. These are not the sort of things you can do when you’re at school – what you do here is very real.

What are you working on now?

Well, I’m in training at the moment, because I’ll be working with radioactive materials, so this involves health and safety to the highest standard. My first year was medical radiation physics, my second year was material characterisation and this year is nuclear metrology. Metrology is the science of measurement and any industry that’s using radioactive material needs to know exactly what they’re working with.

Work in nuclear at NPL underpins the medical, defence, energy and nuclear decommissioning industries. So, you can be connected to everything that’s radioactive in the UK. I loved my year in nuclear medicine, and I think it can be the most fantastic and rewarding field to work in. Even before starting the apprenticeship, I’ve always had a desire to help people.

And where would you like to be in 10 years?

I want to do impactful science and so I think going down the nuclear road is exactly the right thing for me. But I also want to be raising the profile of science, doing outreach and inspiring more people to follow this route.

What do you want our Limit Less campaign to achieve?

I’d love to see this campaign encourage more neuro-diverse people to pursue STEM careers and to come through different routes. I hope it can help more people understand that if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, who learns by doing, then you should play to your strengths.

If you’re an audible learner that’s fine too, but there will be certain environments that won’t cater as well for you as others. If you’re someone who learns from books then I’m happy for you – and a bit jealous – but I think there are a lot of people out there who are very intelligent, but feel they can’t be as academic as their classmates because the learning format doesn’t suit them as well. That can make you doubt yourself. I want people to know the alternatives and make the choice which is right for them.

Join the campaign to make change happen

To support young people to change the world, we need to limit less and support them more.

No young person should be made to feel locked out of physics. Help us ensure that there are no limits on who can take part.

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