My technical drawing teacher committed suicide one half-term. We pupils never knew the reason, but our total lack of interest in what he had to say, resulting in shameful classroom behaviour, can't have helped. Though the school was otherwise a good one, it tolerated the torment of this teacher, and our failure to learn, year after year. Things technical were of little account.
Technology is meant to be held in higher regard by schools these days, but old prejudices linger. Many teachers confess that their experience of DT has consisted of "making stuff out of junk". Children have responded wanly to the subject. The proportion of GCSE candidates achieving A*-C grades in DT this year averaged 44 per cent.
Against this background the achievement of St Augustine's, a Catholic grant maintained school in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, is arresting: 83 per cent of its DT candidates achieved A*-C grades; a third got A or A*. This despite being academically non-selective, and spending only two hours per week of timetable time on DT - throughout most of Year 10 in makeshift accommodation (while a new technology block was built). Ninety-three per cent of Year 11 pupils were entered.
Central to the school's success has been the attachment of value to the subject. Roger Henderson, head of technology, thinks the whole point of DT is that the processes involved develop skills relevant to all spheres of employment. It requires, for example, research, planning, consultation, making quality assessments and process improvements - with, crucially, a physical outcome. "With a successful product you know you've got everything else right," he says. "DT is the only subject which tests objectively the quality of the decisions a pupil has made."
He mocks the idea that DT is about turning out designers and engineers. Of the school's 109 GCSE successes, perhaps only five could actually make a living designing or engineering, he estimates. It's hardly relevant. The point is that the subject imparts fundamental decision-making skills. So fundamental, he reminds us, that the original three Rs were reading, reckoning and "wrighting" (as in making) - the last was mistakenly transmuted into "writing" by a drunken MP.
Henderson's arrival at St Augustine's in 1992 constituted a return to teaching after several years of advisory work. "It drove me bonkers," he reflects. "People say 'Gimme Inset, gimme Inset', so you do, and for a couple of days they'll improve, then you go back two weeks later and find they've slumped back down the greasy pole." The miasma of power and oneupmanship created by a roomful of advisory people also troubled him. "One day my daughter pointed out that I never came home and said I'd done something good any more. It was a turning point. I realised that the bit I enjoyed the most was the kids. "
He had seen enough, however, to convince him that most schools are getting almost everything wrong with regard to design and technology: they are failing to explain why it is of value; they are not setting high standards of achievement; and they are teaching it in a manner guaranteed to bore.
Nor does the buck stop with schools. Department for Education and Employment literature is unhelpful and platitudinous, offering statements like "Technology contributes to understanding" - of what? - while the syllabus harbours in its more tedious and low-value elements the seeds of its own destruction. "The Engineering Council has a lot to answer for. I mean, take auxiliary projections. You only ever do them to prove you can do them."
Technology at St Augustine's, by contrast, is resolutely action-packed. Henderson tells the kids they will "never write, and never use textbooks, apart from to get technical data". There is no place for the pedantic ("naming the parts of a tool") or the prescriptive ("let's all make a toffee hammer"). Henderson's own preferred reading includes Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; The Tom Peters Seminar; Belasco's Teaching the Elephant to Dance; Dinosaur Brains by Bernstein and Rozen; Kriegel's If it Ain't Broke - Break It! and Harris's I'm OK - You're OK. From these books and Baum's research into reversing educational underachievement he has drawn a barrage of motivational techniques with which to enthuse pupils.
Chief among them are a refusal to countenance failure, the granting of autonomy, and buckets of praise. "As in life, if people believe they can succeed, capitalise on their strengths and remain focused they will succeed. Especially if they have two years to do it." St Augustine's pupils were guaranteed top grades if they took advice, worked steadily and planned the use of their time. All pupils were advised to choose their own project, related to their post-16 plans - their end products are accordingly diverse, ranging from pairs of shoes to parts of buildings; from a logic tester for computers to a full-size, 15-foot horse jump.
Pupils were also free to choose where and with which teachers they wanted to work, leading to free-flowing traffic between the various rooms in the technology block. Henderson's tends to be the hammering and banging class; pupils in search of a quieter ambience could retreat elsewhere. Generally, the technology block was open to all between 9am and 5.30pm.
Each of the four experienced DT teachers on the team has a mentoring relationship with 15 pupils in each half year group on the timetable. They helped each pupil to understand exactly what he or she would have to do to get an A in the context of his or her particular project. Henderson rewrote the 50 criteria for grade A and distributed his rewrite along with the fictitious account of a girl who had just successfully completed a DT GCSE, correlating key points in her story with grade A criteria. Pupils were "sparked up continually" and reminded frequently of the goal ahead. Their performance was regularly measured.
Another key success factor has been the "can-do" culture which the school has managed to engender. "We emphasise the value of now," says Henderson. "If it needs doing, do it now: learn the skill, use the phone, seek expert advice, contact that company - whatever it was, we tried to arrange it on the spot and immediately to create an all-action atmosphere."
It sounds like hard work, and it is. The teaching has been demanding and sometimes beyond the knowledge of the teachers, as in the case of one boy's advanced electronics project. As the GCSEs drew nearer, things got intense. Pupils became workaholics; staff "moved the earth" to facilitate their effort. It was worth it. The first day back in September saw Henderson's team breaking open the champagne.
They have a sympathetic context for their work. Headteacher Robert Cook, an ardent proponent of grant maintained status (St Augustine's was first off the block in Wiltshire), is a dynamo with eyes firmly fixed on the career horizons of his pupils and a keen appreciation of design and technology himself. The school is everywhere in the process of upgrading itself, and wherever technology has a role, it's incorporated - from Ceefax in reception delivering sports results and notice of meetings to the editing suite in the music room.
A business ethic also permeates the school. The in-house print room operates as a limited company. The head's office resembles a company boardroom. The brochure promoting the school's new sixth form shows pupils looking like young executives, in deliberately businesslike uniform.
But the view at St Augustine's is that we ain't seen nothing yet. One hundred per cent A*-C grades in design and technology is absolutely achievable, Henderson believes. What's more, he says: "Any school can achieve what we did, by setting targets for grades, and by applying the strategies we did." Interested parties are welcome to visit to see how it's done. As Robert Cook says, "Anyone can come in, without notice." Behold the value of now.
o For more information about the school's DT strategies, contact Roger Henderson at St Augustine's School, Wingfield Road, Trowbridge, Wiltshire BA14 9EN, fax: 01225 777303.