The Smallpeice legacy


During the relatively short existence of the Smallpeice Trust, many thousands – children, students, engineers and managers alike – have benefited from its work. The Trust recently celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary, providing an opportunity to reflect on its origins and consider the impact it has had on the engineering industry, in particular the active support and training it now offers young people considering a career in engineering.

Origins of the Smallpeice Trust

Cosby Smallpeice was a brilliant and innovative engineer, largely self-taught, who was passionate about pursuing his personal philosophy: ‘simplicity in design, economy in production,’ originating from a lifetime’s contribution to engineering.

For Dr Smallpeice, successful engineering meant designing a component as economically and efficiently as possible in terms of manpower, materials and manufacturing time, so that it worked first time. This philosophy developed during the late 1920s out of his frustration at being unable to find an affordable lathe that was well designed, efficient and economic. His solution was straightforward – he designed his own. The resulting Smallpeice Lathe was admired for being simple, reliable and economical to produce.

On his retirement in 1966 Dr Smallpeice channelled his energies into founding the Smallpeice Educational Trust Ltd, aimed at ‘… promoting the advancement of education and in particular, but not exclusively, to support, encourage, develop and maintain engineering and technology in all its branches.’ (Council Minutes, 1970). One of the innovations of the early years of the Trust was the development of the Design for Production course, based on the Smallpeice philosophy, and designed to produce: ‘… a broad spectrum man, fully conversant with the entire production process and capable of ironing out production difficulties as they arise in the design stage, thus saving valuable time and money’. (Engineering, 1970).

The first headquarters of the Trust were a few modest rooms above a bus station in Southampton and activities concentrated on promoting and developing the Design for Production course, establishing readerships in universities and developing contacts in the engineering industry. Financial support was also offered to engineering apprentices. Four years later the Trust had expanded considerably and new premises were purchased. Within a further two years, due to the ‘vast demand’ for courses, another centre was opened, this time in Leamington Spa. By 1984 a major revitalisation was necessary and the Trust was restructured, renamed and refocused. The Southampton branch closed and the headquarters of the Smallpeice Trust centred on Leamington Spa. A subsidiary company, Smallpeice Enterprises Ltd, was created to shoulder the commercial business activities, freeing the Trust to concentrate on promoting engineering as a stimulating and rewarding career option, and training young engineers of a suitably high calibre as demanded by the industry.

Engineering careers development

These activities broadly remain the aims of the Trust, as the key intention of Engineering Careers Development (ECD), the current department responsible for education and training, is to ‘to show young people that design and engineering can offer an exciting, rewarding and creative career’ (Keith Davis, ECD Manager). By focusing on what is required both within education and the engineering industry the Trust aims to:

  • enhance perceptions of engineering as a career option

  • offer young people an awareness of career opportunities within professional engineering

  • provide basic and support skills as well as enhancing professional development

  • create worthwhile links between education and industry.

Since 1998 Engineering Careers Development has provided a tiered and continuous system which supports young people during their secondary schooling and beyond into university and/or industry. This has been achieved through close liaison with educators, and with professionals working within the engineering industry. A comprehensive package has been designed which recognises the special requirements of different year groups and is intended to offer a ‘holistic all round experience of engineering.’ It consists of four main components:

  • Smallpeice Engineering Experience (SEE) is aimed at Year 9 students (13/14-year-olds) and focuses on designing and making things, and creativity in design;

  • Smallpeice Engineering Skills and Careers (SESC) offers Year 10 students (15-year-olds) a package aimed at promoting the diversity of engineering and illustrates the various pathways available towards a career in engineering;

  • Smallpeice Engineering Management (SEM) is designed to encourage Year 11 students (16- year-olds) to get to grips with management issues and personal development;

  • The Engineering Careers Foundation Year (ECFY) provides the last piece in the jigsaw. Engineering Careers Foundation Year

This is the final phase in the Smallpeice Education Programme and is aimed at gap year students, those taking a year off between the end of secondary education and the first year at university. The idea originated from a conference in 1995 when industrialists claimed that the education system was not producing enough engineering students of the calibre required to fill jobs in the engineering industry. After an extensive consultation, the Trust realised that what was needed was clear, practical experience and support, combined with the ability to speak a foreign language. The Engineering Careers Foundation Year (ECFY) was developed to fill the gap and provides a logical extension to the previous programmes offered to students.

The course is intensive, demanding and great fun and provides a unique combination of study, language tuition and travel and work experience in Europe. After an initial three months in the UK, which includes a vigorous outward-bound course on Dartmoor and engineering training at Plymouth University, students spend one month at a language school. This is followed by three months work placement in European Industry. This year students experienced placements in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Spain and Norway. Students are encouraged to keep a diary during the year, examples of which can be accessed on the Trust’s website (address at end of article).

Best programme

The success of the Smallpeice courses has been recognised by The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Best Programme. In 2001, the core activities were affiliated into the Best Programme, joining other distinguished schemes such as Year in Industry, Headstart, Engineering Leadership Awards, Engineering Education Scheme and the Sainsbury Management Fellowship Scheme. The inclusion of the Smallpeice courses has extended the capabilities of the overall programme, which now presents a fully integrated, tiered scheme aimed at promoting and developing an interest in a career in engineering.

All courses are residential and follow a successful format developed during the 1980s, which focuses on hands-on, problem solving activities, combined with personal development. The first residential school was held in 1983 at Sherborne School in Dorset when 50 boys and 24 girls took part in an enjoyable, largely practical four-day course. Challenges included: ‘Using a copy of the Daily Telegraph and various adhesive materials, design and construct a tower as high as possible capable of supporting a working beacon’. (The winning tower was 3.5 m high!) This year, one hundred Year 9 students took part in the Smallpeice Engineering Experience (SEE) held at Sheffield University, sponsored by companies such as Rolls Royce, Corus and Taylor Woodrow. Modern challenges have kept up to date with recent world developments. At the 2001 SEE course, also held in Sheffield, students were asked to tackle the following problem: ‘Build and operate a buggy capable of travelling through a minefield without coming to any harm’. Students continue to enjoy valuable learning experiences through hands-on, problem solving activities, but other important lessons are also learned:

‘… It was the first time that he had stayed away from home and although he was a little anxious at first, he soon settled in, made new friends and really enjoyed the experience. On the long journey home, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm and talked constantly about the time he had had …’. Parent of Year 9 student.

The Best Programme

Year 9 Smallpeice Engineering Experience (SEE)

Year 10 Smallpeice Engineering Skills & Careers (SESC)

Year 11 Smallpeice Engineering Management (SEM)

Year 12 Headstart Engineering Education Scheme (EES)

Gap Year Smallpeice Engineering Careers Foundation Year (ECFY)

Year in Industry

Other courses and opportunities

A wide range of other opportunities are open to young people, complementing the core education programme based on the Trust’s continuing commitment to equal opportunities, regardless of sex, financial situation or background.

Girl power

The Trust has always promoted engineering as a career choice for both boys and girls. Residential courses are mixed, and educational and training programmes open to girls as well as boys. Some strategies, however, are exclusively aimed at showing girls that a career in engineering is viable. The Trust has supported Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) since its inception in 1984, and has recently sponsored the seventh WISE bus. The bus travels to schools across the country, armed with posters, literature, videos and activities designed to make engineering attractive and accessible to girls.

For the last five years the Trust has also worked in partnership with the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) to run Insight courses for girls. The European Insight Programme offers opportunities for girls to find out about a career in engineering, and to experience a different culture by staying with host families. During 2002, twenty British girls are going to Chambery in France and a further twenty are travelling to Jyvaskyla in Finland to join local girls on an engineering awareness course. The week will include activities such as company visits, engineering projects, lectures, workshops and presentations by women engineers.

Maths marvels

Younger students are also supported. Maths Marvels is a recent course aimed at gifted Year 6 children (top primary), promoting teamwork and problem solving skills, enhancing numeracy. Coventry City Council Numeracy Office approached the Trust with a proposal to run a series of courses aimed at stretching gifted youngsters. Maths Marvels is based on real life problems, and involves teamwork and problem solving skills in a relaxed atmosphere. It is intended to track participants on this course, who have now moved on to secondary schools, so their progress can be measured.

Global connections

The Trust has always understood the importance of providing a European dimension to its educational programme and recognises that future engineers will need to be a mobile workforce. ECFY is the immediate result of this awareness, but other developments are highlighting the value of the expertise and experience of the Trust in a global capacity. For the past three years the Trust has built up a recruitment course tailored to meet the needs of 6th form students in Ulstein, Norway. Eighteen students, supported by Ulstein Verft A/S and Rolls-Royce Marine Systems, spend a week at Ulstein ship building company learning about presentation skills, teambuilding, creativity and problem solving. The same students are then given a chance to come to a follow-up course in Leamington Spa where students are given a taster of engineering in the UK.

In Catalonia, a three week course for electronics students from Institut d’Ensenyament Secundari La Garrotxa allows a dozen young Spanish technicians to explore engineering design, problem solving, team building and project management, as well as benefiting from English language experience. The aim is to give delegates an insight into British engineering industry and visits to companies such as Jaguar Cars Ltd and Marconi Communications are included.

Many European countries are adapting Smallpeice courses to fit their own requirements. Kirrkonummi in Finland, for example, is running its first course for Year 9 students, based on the Smallpeice Engineering Experience.

The value of international connections outside Europe is also recognised and important partnerships are being developed. The Engineering Link Group, an educational charity in Australia set up and operated by Science teachers, offers scholarships to the UK as part of its programme, which includes attendance on the Smallpeice Engineering Management course.

‘My trip to the UK for the Smallpeice Trust/Engineering Link Group Scholarship will be remembered among the greatest days of my life. Not only was it an invaluable experience towards my future career in engineering, but also it was a great holiday. I am forever grateful … for this great experience.

Student from Townsville State High School, Rockhampton, Queensland

Benefactions, competitions and prizes

Supporting individuals, groups and projects promoting good practice in engineering education continues to be an important part of the Trust’s work. Benefactions for 2002 include contributing towards the running costs of its sister trust, the Arkwright Scholarships Trust; sponsoring four Arkwright Scholars; supporting WISE bus number seven; providing funding towards City University’s Dartington Sustainability Project; and awarding prizes to students at six universities and five ‘Year in Industry’ regions.

The Trust is always keen to be involved in engineering events for young people such as ‘Tomorrow’s World Live’, held at Earls Court. This year’s Smallpeice challenge was: ‘to design, construct and test a crashworthy vehicle.’ Teams of school children designed and built cars, which were then sent down a two-metre ramp into a barrier – containing eggs as passengers! One team invented ‘a suspension system’ with eggs partly suspended on elastic bands; other ingenious devices protected eggs with foam, bumpers and roll bars!

Whilst remaining true to the philosophy of its Founder, the Smallpeice Trust has grown in strength and diversity over the last three and a half decades, in alliance with the Arkwright Scholarships Trust, and complemented by Smallpeice Enterprises Ltd. Through a carefully constructed programme of courses it actively supports young people through secondary education and beyond, providing an introduction to engineering skills and a sound preparation for a future career in engineering. This financial year, some 700 students will benefit from one or more of the Trust’s courses. At a time when there continues to be a serious skills shortage in the UK and industry is hard put to maintain a labour force equal to foreign competitors, the contribution of the Smallpeice Trust remains vibrant and vital.


Smallpeice Trust

The Engineering Link Group

Further reading

A Smallpeice of History’ by Amanda Clarke. Available from the Smallpeice Trust.

Contact details

The Smallpeice Trust

Holly House

74 Upper Holly Walk

Leamington Spa

CV32 4JL

Tel: 01926 333200

Fax: 01926 333202



John R Appleton OBE HONFREng

Chairman, The Smallpeice Trust

John Appleton has been Chairman of the Smallpeice Trust since 2001 and a Trustee since 1996. He is a former Executive Secretary of The Royal Academy of Engineering before which he served in the Army (REME) for thirty years. Currently he is Corporate Development Director, Parsons Brinckerhoff Ltd.

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