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National Apprenticeship
Week 2024
– Adam’s blog

Hear from Adam Burns, a Level 6 Data Science apprentice working in Ofsted…

“Prior to last summer, and a kids birthday party involving a slip and slide, I’d never heard of data science until I got chatting to a fellow parent around the pizza oven. That conversation sparked something that ultimately led to where I am now, writing a blog about how I got into doing a data science degree apprenticeship at Ofsted (I’ve just started my 2nd year).

It happened that I was looking for a change of direction for a few reasons; I’d been self-employed for 16 years as a trainer in the construction sector, this involved a lot of time away from home and the lifestyle just wasn’t working for us as a growing family. Importantly, I was seeking something to challenge my brain once again, that would fit around family life allowing me to participate more in the raising of my children, while bringing a more predictable flow to life in general.

How did I know an apprenticeship would be right for me? Well, I must admit this isn’t my first one! 23 years earlier, I started my first apprenticeship working towards a degree in Chemistry with a pharmaceutical company. Whilst this reasonably was a lifetime ago, I could remember the challenges faced and felt that what I lacked in youth, I could make up for in experience. As a 40-year-old father of 3 with bills to pay, full-time university wasn’t a viable route for me. Hence, I remain incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn and study via a fully funded route.

A key challenge I faced in securing the apprenticeship was to really drill down into the Civil Service recruitment process. I made sure I learned from the feedback from failed applications/interviews. A variety of sources all helped build my understanding; the Civil Service guides themselves were useful, I also found Reddit boards and YouTube channels where I could gain further insight into what was required to be successful at interview. A holistic approach to both application and interview preparation would be my advice.

I heard I had been successful during the summer of 2022 and a September start was agreed with my new employer. Having sourced contractors to facilitate the continuation of our training businesses, and my wife in charge of the day-to-day running, I planned to take the month of August off for some downtime prior to our 3rd baby arriving at the end of that month. Unfortunately, my poor wife broke her ankle after a fall in the first week of August. Let’s just say it was quite a stressful time and I’m not 100% sure how all the plates were kept spinning! Thankfully the loft conversion that also started at this time went relatively smoothly.

So, you’re probably wondering how I found starting my role and the studies? Well, settling into the Civil Service was everything I hoped it to be, the people were nice, the culture was fab and the workplace felt very inclusive and welcoming. I feel supported, valued and very much enjoy the working experience.

The studies were a bit more challenging, my brain seemingly not quite as elastic as it was two decades ago. In short, I had to work hard. The first year involved relatively light programming with more emphasis on the mathematics underlying data science techniques. Mainly statistics, linear algebra and matrices. While I’d previously studied maths at A-level, as you now know that was quite a while ago! The content was challenging as it extended to the further maths syllabus. During the first year I found I was both learning the subject matter and ‘how to do university’, how to learn, how to revise etc. My assessment year is split into two with work due in January and June. My January marks reflected the struggles I alluded to and being honest, I did feel dispirited by them. I also felt determined to apply the learning for the June submissions. The first year flew by, during this time I felt well supported by both my line manager and my appointed contact at the university. There were some teething troubles with the course, but these have been resolved with open communication between students, the Civil Service and our learning provider. It has been so important throughout my journey to keep dialogue open and to speak up if help has been needed with anything. I’m pleased to report my June marks reflected the learning from my experiences during that first semester.

Now into my second year and I’m about to start my first round of assignments. My confidence as a data scientist has grown thanks to the studying and the supportive work environment. The crossover between work and university is more and more relevant as time moves on and is very much more applied knowledge now. I still have a monthly crisis where I think I’m never going to be a data scientist as my mind is blown by the next quantum leap in my journey (currently machine learning) but I know to break things down now, learn things piecemeal and perhaps most importantly, talk openly with my line manager and say when I need time to immerse myself in something so I can learn.

Ahead of applying, I wasn’t sure whether I still had the brains to learn new things. It had been so long since I had studied that I was missing some self-belief. In the end, I found confidence from an unlikely source; after seeing a video where an entire class of 8-year-olds had learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube. I decided that, while 8-year-olds are pretty smart, I should be able to do it too. For a fun fact, there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations for a Rubik’s cube so fluking a solve is somewhat unlikely. The recipe for success it seems, like that of most things in life is to break it down into elements, practise each step until you know it and make friends with failure. It took me a week to be able to link all the individual algorithms together. Embarrassingly, my then 6-year old son then learnt to do it in 3-days, he has always had his mother’s brains.

In summary, I don’t regret a thing about my career change and hope that this insight helps you with the decisions you are looking to make about your future.”

Headshot of Adam Burns, Level 6 Data Science apprentice working in OFSTED.
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