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A design for learning

It's a brilliant but simple idea - rather than send pupils to a workplace, why not bring it to the school? Nicolas Barnard reports.

UNTIL May, if design students at Thomas Alleyne's High School wanted practical insights into industry they had to find work experience. Now they do not have to move an inch.

The Staffordshire comprehensive has hit upon the perfect complement to its new design and technology block - a living, breathing, trading, design company on site.

In return for free rent, rates and power, worth at least Pounds 500 a month, new firm Handforth Rawle spends 10 hours a week with the 70 sixth-formers studying design and technology. Out of term, it will design the Uttoxeter school's prospectus and do other similar work.

"It was a natural progression," says Kevin Jones, the head of design. "It's important for kids to understand the nature of business, manufacturing and commerce and the best way for that is to get them in here."

Students will be able to watch the firm take on commissions, discuss briefs, and work through to the finished product. They will also get to meet the other companies Handforth Rawle works with.

It is not the school's only innovation. While rewriting teachers' contracts is causing friction in education action zones, Thomas Alleyne's has effectively already crossed that Rubicon. For four years Mr Jones has been "sponsored" by a large local employer, construction manufacturer JCB.

In return for an extra point on his salary (worth about Pounds 1,000 a year), he spends two weeks of his annual leave with the company.

It has led some to describe the 13 to 18 technology college as a "one-school action zone", although headteacher Peter Mitchell might balk at the suggestion.

Uttoxeter is a market town ringed by industry, not quite prosperous but hardly on its uppers. The town is most famous for its racecourse, but the school wants to build a different reputation.

It wants to attract leading designers to host weekend workshops for its fast-growing sixth form, and video conference links are planned with institutions such as Goldsmiths College in London, where many of the school's design students go to study.

The design centre was built in a disused primary school to mark the school's new technology college status. Designed by Mr Jones - "a great opportunity to state our philosophy for design" - it was sponsored by JCB.

With bare brick walls and exposed piping, it purposely looks more like a working business than a school building. The private studio is bright and spacious.

Derby University design lecturers Phil Rawle and Glenn Handforth were looking for a studio after deciding to set up the firm with Mr Rawle's graphic designer wife, Jean Barrett. They specialise in company identities and publicity material, while Ms Barrett designs tableware.

"It sounded like a strange request to come here - I imagined a teeny dark room," Mr Rawle says. "But I was impressed not only by the space but by the general level of foresight and thinking. Kevin and I seem to be on the same wavelength. I've got quite strong beliefs about the importance of design in society, and it's refreshing to come to a school that has got the same attitudes."

Mr Jones says he has tried to create a design-led, rather than a technology-led, department. "We believe in looking at things from scratch in the same way thatpeople do in industry."

Handforth Rawle is not the only firm on site: the playgroup, where some pupils learn about childcare, has just become a private business, while the school also runs its own self-supporting farm.

The design firm has a three-year lease; after that the school plans to hand the studio on to another new business - ideally one which would be run by a former pupil.

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