Sonardyne has been supporting engineering education in a modest way for a decade or so, by sponsoring students through university engineering courses and funding post-graduate research projects. The Company has also funded ‘outreach’ programmes, with university lecturers going into schools to foster interest in engineering among younger children.


Back in 2012, a bigger opportunity presented itself at a local Hampshire sixth form school, Alton College, which has a very good reputation for teaching engineering and design technology to 16 to 18-year olds. The College had well-equipped but cramped workshops in which students undertook personal design-and-build projects, from concept to finished prototype, using a wide variety of technologies. With an unsatisfied demand for these courses, the school governors had the vision to plan and commence construction of a new “Engineering and Design and Technology” building. By the time the building’s foundations were rising, the recession resulted in loss of funding and construction work was halted.

In 2011, with no prospect of government funding being re-instated, and the exposed foundations and steel work deteriorating, the College either had to bury the foundations, or raise the money to re-start the construction work. The College secured the backing of the locally resident Chairman of Rolls-Royce to launch an appeal in January 2012, and this came to the attention of John Partridge, Chairman and Founder of Sonardyne. Now John remembers with affection his time as an apprentice at Rolls-Royce in Bristol, though it was then the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s Engine Division and Rolls-Royce were competitors.

So John and his wife Betsan made a donation to the appeal and persuaded the Board of Sonardyne International to match their donation. While waiting for the appeal to raise sufficient money to re-start the building work, Sonardyne forged closer relations with Alton College, with Director Graham Brown giving lectures, and with John and other staff giving technical support to student projects.

“Let’s just get on with it”

Towards the end of 2012, it was obvious that it would take years to raise the money, so John suggested to the College Appeal Manager, Rebecca Stotesbury-Galhardi, “Let’s just get on with it. By the beginning of the next academic year, you can be teaching 100 extra students in a really modern and inspiring building.” So John secured the backing of the Board of Sonardyne International to underwrite the whole cost of completing the building.

Fortunately, a survey revealed that the exposed steelwork was all in good condition and the original builder was immediately available. So construction re-started at the beginning of January 2013 and the building was opened by Professor Robert Winston in November. The vision and planning of The Principal, Jane Machell, and the Board of Governors, together with the architect’s imaginative design, has resulted in a building that is an attraction in itself, a pleasure to teach in, and has encouraged many more students to take up engineering-related subjects.

Sonardyne’s only suggested change of specification for the building was to upgrade the planned education-grade machine tools to professional machine tools as used in Sonardyne’s own machine shop. The Head of Engineering at the College, Adrian Dee, has been delighted with the capabilities of these machines. The college kindly named the building ‘Sonardyne Centre’, which makes all employees proud to have their contribution to the community recognised.

The birth of The Sonardyne Foundation

Meanwhile, John decided to set up a charity as a basis for permanent support for engineering education, and donate to a wider range of causes which the Board fully supported.

It is intended that the charity will eventually be independent of Sonardyne, but it presently relies on donations out of the Company’s profits to build up sufficient funds to invest and provide a regular income for the charity’s future. The focus now is to seek out students to sponsor, paying their university tuition fees on engineering courses, so helping them avoid indebtedness for many years into their careers. For its own contribution to undergraduate education, the Company offers vacation work in the Engineering Department and year-long industrial placements.

The Sonardyne Foundation has also recently commenced donations to the Royal Institution, once Michael Faraday’s home and laboratory, to support three years of Masterclasses in Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science for children around the South East of England.

Apprenticeships and Foundation Degrees

In Sonardyne’s early years, the Company employed ready-trained ex-apprentices from the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. But the RAE suffered from government cut-backs and apprenticeships were gradually reduced. For many years now, new production staff have been trained through traditional apprenticeships at Sonardyne, but design engineers have been recruited directly from universities or industry.

Recently Sonardyne started offering Student Apprenticeships for potential design engineers. This is linked to three year Foundation Degree courses with academic engineering subjects taught at college on a dayrelease basis, similar to Student Apprenticeships common in 1950s UK.

But the history of work-place engineering education in the UK goes back to the 1920s and 1930s. After the First World War, start-up companies in the new technology of aviation had to train their own aerodynamicists, designer draftsmen, stressmen etc., and so set up training schools. An apprentice from the De Havilland Aircraft Company, went on to head engineering at GE’s aero-engine division. Designers from companies such as Miles Aircraft and Airspeed all had their own training schools and some of their designers went on to prominent positions in Boeing. By the late 1950s, the Bristol Aeroplane Company had thousands of apprentices on the payroll, but due to the slimming down of manufacturing in the UK, the surplus of trained employees for smaller companies dried up.

Sonardyne’s Student Apprentice scheme is in its early days and experienced staff still have to learn to mentor and teach potential design engineers, but this applies to all technology-based companies wanting to succeed in the future.