The design and technology building at John Kelly boys' technology college in the London borough of Brent may have a rather unprepossessing exterior aspect. A rather sad red brick affair set on the edge of a dismal playground, it looks something like a Sixties swimming bath block. But its lowly appearance belies the high status, high-tech activity within.
While the school itself is second to the bottom of Brent's league tables - having slumped eight percentage points from last year - Damp;T is in the ascendant.
The department boasts pound;80,000 of the latest computer aided design and manufacture equipment, which is used by every pupil from Year 7 to A-level every day. The department is also a development and training centre for the national CADCAM initiative, training teachers from 33 London boroughs and Southampton to use the ProDesktop software.
In addition, the Damp;T staff work with local feeder primaries as well as a nearby special school for children with moderate learning difficulties. And the director of technology, Martin Harvey, has co-written several CADCAM units of work for teachers which are being distributed by the Technology Enhancement Programme (TEP) and DATA and available through those organisations.
All that energy has had a marked impact on pupils' attainment. Last year, 52 per cent of pupils achieved A to C grades in GCSE Damp;T in contrast with only 18 per cent four years ago. Not bad when you consider that only 23 per cent are achieving five or more A to Cs in all curriculum areas. Andy Breckon of the Design and Technology Association calls it "one of the best inner-city schools in the country for immersing all pupils in CADCAM".
Martin Harvey was using CADCAM with his students before it was a twinkle in the eye of the national curriculum. Four years ago, he introduced the policy of making it compulsory for all pupils at key stage 3, which led to a 34 per cent hike in exam results in one year.
Every pupil from Year 7 to A-level has been using the state-of-the-art technology in a suite kitted out by funding that comes with technology college status, and in the process they are learning skills to deal with the industrial world outside. "Rather than making toast racks and tea trays, we're bringing them into the modern creative and working environmentthat's waiting for them when they leave school," says Martin Harvey.
The Year 9 class I visited was creating plastic moulded maze games, the type with a ball-bearing inside that drives people potty trying to get it into the hole. Pupils had first created their design in 2-D, then moved on to 3-D.
Another group had designed chairs. Using CADCAM, they first designed the form, then positioned each component part on the screen and finally switched to CAM software, instructing the cutter where to cut. That was when the Unimatic cnc milling machine got down to business, screeching away, to do the pupils' bidding.
"It's one-shot manufacture," says Martin Harvey. "And it motivates pupils because it gives them the freedom to experiment and explore ideas." The software's licence allows pupils to take it home and use it there, which many do for homework or else to design whatever they fancy. One boy had made brackets for bookshelves. Others have designed name plates and cars. Conceptualisation becomes a richer experience and more fun, since the ProDesktop software offers pupils a virtual reality workshop, allowing them to create virtual prototypes. And those experiences in which skills and knowledge are acquired reflect back into their performance.
Martin Harvey says: "Our first high GCSE exam results came at the end of the first year we had CADCAM. We created a different atmosphere in the department with this equipment and pupils became more motivated. In other schools, only sixth-formers or students at degree level are achieving the same levels as we are reaching here."
Inspired by Martin Harvey's work with CADCAM, Paul Talbot, head of technology and art at Woodfield school for moderate learning difficulties, has taken CADCAM on enthusiastically and is one of two MLD schools in the country using ProDesktop. Trained by Mr Harvey to use the programmes, he is now writing adapted schemes of work for his own pupils. "Our pupils can achieve 100 per cent in this. It's enabling them to go into careers in industry that previously weren't available to them."
John Kelly boys are being influenced by the "hard-nosed technology" that they are being exposed to from Year 7. "The status of engineering may not be well-recognised among our parents," says Martin Harvey. "But almost all our students leave here taking a course or job in some sort of technology."