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Danger in the workshop

New advice on safety in Damp;T could provide a lift to a neglected subject. But it's more important than ever to be up to date on the guidelines, writes Phil Revell

British Standard 4163. Doesn't sound too exciting, does it? But thousands of design and technology teachers may perk up when they read this document. On the other hand, some of its contents could signal problems for those heads who have been inclined to divert resources away from the subject.

The new standard, released at the end of the last school year and just making its way into schools, sets out workshop standards and includes advice on just about everything a teacher would need to know about safety - including class size.

"The recommended number in any work area should be no more than 21 with one teacher," the report says. And it goes on to make clear that the limit applies no matter what activity is taking place. Some lessons, including foundry work, would require even smaller classes.

Guidance from Whitehall has long stated that design and technology classes should aim at a maximum of 21, and the Teacher Training Agency safety standards have come to the same conclusion. But for some heads the news will be about as welcome as a hand grenade tossed into their office.

Damp;T is expensive. To set up a single workshop from scratch can easily soak up pound;50,000. For years, schools have survived on out-of-date and often second-hand kit, with many projects bound by the price of materials rather than their educational potential.

Ofsted reports have rarely seen the subject's results as a key indicator of schools' success or failure. Delegated management has allowed heads to ignore the advice of their local authority advisers while money has been poured into other subjects - especially ICT - or into smartening up the building. In one Midlands school, Damp;T teachers were left using equipment from the 1950s while huge sums were spent on carpets and refurbishing public areas of the school and the head's office.

"In some authorities, LMS has resulted in maintenance programmes falling behind," says Birmingham's Design and Technology adviser Stuart Scott.

But Curriculum 2000 requires pupils to be able to use the latest technologies, including CADCAM, and to be able to work with a range of new materials. This highlights all the more the long spell of underinvestment that many Damp;T departments have suffered.

Teachers have fallen behind in their knowledge of modern approaches because take-up of in-service training has often been poor. How many, for instance, would recognise materials such as Foamex, anodised aluminium, acrylic sheeting, featherboard and an ever-expanding range of composite boards?

"Some of these can be toxic," says Scott. "Styrofoam, for example - as a modelling material it's very useful because it can be easily shaped using simple tools, but it releases toxic fumes when burnt and can create a lot of dust."

MDF - medim density fibreboard - is another commonly used material. "Research has shown that it's safe to use provided there is adequate dust extraction," says Scott. "And adequate here means at source, not room extraction. This is fine if you are routing the material, working on a milling machine or a lathe, but it's not so easy to cope with if you are working on a bench top."

His solution is to use industrial vacuum cleaners to get rid of the dust as it is created. "But this is expensive and people don't like doing it," he adds.

Some teachers have found their way around resourcing problems with a bit of self-help - either by modifying their own classrooms or by cutting costs on new tools. At the same time, limited budgets have encouraged many to buy off-the-shelf equipment - often including imported tools designed for the DIY market.

"In many cases this is very unsatisfactory," warns Scott. "Guarding is often inadequate, as is dust extraction. Electrical insulation and cabling often do not compare with British Standards."

He is keen to emphasise the availablity of advisers who are ready to offer teachers advice on making modifications or buying non-standard kit and says teachers should check the proposed changes before going ahead.

"It's easy to get bogged down in health and safety issues," he says. "But we should keep sight of what education is about - that means encouraging positive attitudes towards the use of tools and equipment. We don't want children to grow up frightened to have a go, but it's important they are able to do that in an environment that is organised and safe.

"From the very beginning children should be encouraged to accept responsibility for their health and safety. By Year 9 or 10 they should be automatically going to get the right kit at the start of an activity, whether it's goggles or a dust mask."

While health and safety guidelines have no direct legal force, the wider duty of care with which teachers and heads are charged mean they are obliged more than ever to stay abreast of the latest guidance. It is only a matter of time before a school is prosecuted for breaking the guidelines.

Curriculum 2000 requires children to experience all that modern Damp;T has to offer, but this could mean spending money on bringing workshops up to scratch and finding the extra staffing to conform to the latest guidelines.

"What this guidance represents is a tool that Damp;T staff can use to lever more resources for their department," says one teacher. "It's good news for the subject."

The Design and Technology Association (DATA) offers a health and safety accreditation scheme for teachers covering all areas of the subject. For more information, contact DATA, 6 Wellsbourne House, Walton Road, Wellesbourne, Warwickshire. CV35 9JB. Stuart Scott is on DATA's new database of consultants and is available as a freelance to schools outside Birmingham for advice on health and safety issues

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