Andy Serkis shooting actors at the Imaginarium Studios - a member of the NextGen steering group.

NextGen Skills Academy launches games animation diploma

This September, government and industry-backed NextGen Skills Academy, in partnership with AIM Awards, is launching a new level three extended diploma in games, animation and VFX skills at four further education colleges in England.

The NextGen Skills Academy, a consortium of key VFX and games industry players including Double Negative, Framestore, Sony Entertainment Europe, Ubisoft and Rebellion will launch its level 3 extended diploma in games, animation and VFX skills at North East Surrey College of Technology, Sunderland College, Truro and Penwith College and Uxbridge College.

The two-year course is open to candidates aged 16+ with four A-C grade GSCEs, (including English and Maths) and will enable students to achieve a level 3 qualification, equivalent to three A-levels. Successful students will also be armed with a comprehensive industry-specific portfolio designed to propel them either straight into a working environment, on to university or into one of four higher apprenticeships in games and VFX to be announced later in 2015.

Great career opportunities

The games, animation and VFX industries net the UK economy around £6bn annually, with average sector pay of around £38,000 - considerably higher than the national average. Yet nearly half of the companies in these sectors are struggling to find particular skills in new recruits.

The NextGen Skills Academy was established in 2014 in response to an industry review that revealed a gap in the education system in providing these crucial skills. The Academy commissioned research into continued professional development (CPD) amongst key employers within games, animation and VFX sectors earlier this year. It found that almost half of the 935 employers surveyed reported ‘hard to fill vacancies’ or skills shortages, compared with just five per cent of employers from other industries across the UK economy.

The most common shortages over all three industries are software skills and coding/programming. For example, within the animation sector, 64 per cent of vacancies involve software skills and in the games industry over half of the jobs available are in coding/programming, with 31 per cent being vacancies for software skills.

The level 3 extended diploma is the first real attempt at targeting creative and talented students to ensure that they have a total understanding of what the industry needs and are able to identify where their skills lie in a large and complicated pipeline.

“We’re trying to do something much more in line with what employers are asking,” says Gina Jackson, NextGen Skills Academy’s Managing Director. “We questioned employers what they wanted in terms of education, which I don’t think had ever been done before for such new and fast moving sectors.”

A combination of technical know-how and art

The combination of technical know-how and art is crucial to visual effects and animation and likewise in games development, which is all about combining art with engineering, science and maths. So while there are specific skill sets lacking, one of the main objectives of the new diploma course is also to provide an overall facility that combines STEM subjects with art (STEAM).

“Hitherto, that combination hasn’t been available because people are studying classical GSCEs and A-levels in single STEM subjects, rather than trying to fuse them all together,” says Jackson. “Granted, we are a niche, but we are also a growing and important industry, so need to ensure that we will have these specialist skills both for these sectors and to aid every student going forward in the digital age.”

In the first year of the diploma students will study eight different modules, including maths fundamentals for the games, animation and VFX industries, fundamental product-programming skills and core principles of game design.

Fundamental skills

“These modules will allow the students to gain the fundamental skills that they need to work in all three of the targeted industries and successfully gain places at higher-education institutions or on higher apprenticeships,” states David Atkinson-Beaumont, deputy team leader for vocational arts and community and games development course leader at Truro and Penwith College.

“The creative games, animation and visual FX industries are largely graduate employers and their feedback indicates that learning certain skills at university isn’t enough - students need to start younger and have a broader awareness, which is what this course creates,” he adds.

The second year of the diploma will give students unprecedented access to people whose brands appear on the boxes of their favourite games and DVDs, enabling them to learn different ways of working in the professional creative workplace and giving them the chance to create a portfolio of work that shows off their talent.

“Students who want to work for Sony, Pixar or Framestore need to know what each person at each stage of a product’s development does,” explains Atkinson-Beaumont. “What does the art team provide? Who is responsible for quality? Why does anything need a storyboard? Then they need to have a go at each of these stages whilst learning how to be in a team, how to manage a project and how to please a client.
 
“Students with interpersonal skills as strong as their software skills will help drive our excellent creative industries further forward in the future – something that has been missing from level 3 qualifications to date.”

Developed by industry and academia

Key to this new diploma is that it was created with input from both the industry sector and educational bodies.

“We’ve been to numerous sessions hosted by NextGen where we have helped the representatives from some very cool companies understand what today’s school leavers are like. It’s been really great having our voices heard in a way that rarely happens,” says Atkinson-Beaumont.

“Pre-existing programs date so quickly because they have units which are written by different individuals who never meet and discuss the nature or purpose of the overall qualifications. I’ve written units myself in the past and it’s done in isolation against a shortlist of requirements and assessment outcomes.”

In order to commission colleges to run the diplomas, NextGen sent in teams of in-house specialists and industry employers to gauge the teaching facilities and general infrastructure of various establishments.  One of the biggest criteria is having the ‘mentality’ to work with large, fast-moving industries and in its initial investigations NextGen found just four colleges that fit the bill.

“As this is our first pilot year the initiative is launching in four colleges, then we will build on that year-on-year,” explains Jackson.

Industry involvement

The NextGen diploma is unique in that industry partners are in it for the long haul - setting assignments, commenting on student work and continuing to direct their future employees.

“We support all our colleges with the employer groups that we supply to them and with the industry brief, so it’s not like we just send out a qualification and leave our colleges to it. It’s a fully supported service and it is going to take us some while to bring that up,” says Jackson.

“I think it’s really hard for 16-year-olds to work out what they want to do as a job. Here is a great way of experiencing three sectors in two years and working out what part of it works for you, where your skills are and how to develop those skills.”

In terms of the 2015/16 intake the four participating colleges have been contacting students who have already applied for creative and technical courses and have also been communicating with schools. Applications for the new course will remain open until the end of October this year. For further information visit http://www.nextgenskillsacademy.com/.

Look out for our November feature on the NextGen Skills Academy VFX and games higher apprenticeships.

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