There can't be many special schools where you find middle managers from NatWest, Marks Spencer and Southern Water helping teenagers construct prototype machines out of egg-boxes, coat-hangers, clothes-pegs and lollipop sticks. Yet this was the scene one day this term at Bowden House, a residential school on the edge of the South Downs in Sussex for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties run by Tower Hamlets. The activity was just one part of an event designed to help the boys get to grips with the world of work.
Essential aims of the two-day "conference", organised by the Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership (EBP) as part of the Getting Ahead programme, were to bring the boys into contact with employers; to encourage them to think about life after school; and to help them develop the skills they'll need in the job market.
These boys are going to need all the help they can get. Some of the 15 and 16-year-olds have a reading age of 8, and difficulty in writing at even a basic level. Any qualifications they gain will be minimal.
All the boys at Bowden House - they range in age from 8 to 16 - have statements of special needs. Some have been excluded from ordinary primary schools. Others have been referred from special schools on the advice of educational psychologists. "We're the next step down," says senior teacher Barrie Sadler. "These boys have many problems: they don't take correction well, they have very short fuses, and they often react violently, both to people and to the furniture and fittings."
Clearly the odds are stacked against many of them from an early age. Conditions at home can be very basic: families are large, often single-parent and mostly poor, with violence, abuse, drink and, occasionally, drugs an all too familiar part of the landscape. Significantly, many of the boys' parents and siblings have been to a special school.
The boys get little support from home in discussing their future. They have some contact with the outside world, with at least two weeks' work experience before they leave school. But their horizons tend to be limited: most end up working with cars, as removal men, or in supermarkets and factories.
This kind of "mentoring" conference is an event that's become familiar to pupils in mainstream schools in Tower Hamlets. It's also been used as a joint exercise between a special school and its neighbouring mainstream school in the borough. But no one in the EBP was quite sure if the format would bed down in the very different circumstances of Bowden House.
A pilot visit last year produced some positive results - an increase in the boys' confidence, a more responsible attitude to their work. And four of the ten adults taking part this year were already known to some of them, since they had been coming into school once a month as "mentors" for individual pupils - another strand of EBP's work.
On the day, organised by project manager Ve Robinson, the boys worked in groups of three with visiting adults. With such individual attention, the conference format needed little adaptation, although the boys' short attention span demanded frequent breaks. According to Barrie Sadler, some boys hold wildly unrealistic ambitions, hoping to become a pilot or a lawyer. For others the problem is different. "They're not always keen to shout out what they can do," said Graham Farley, a mentor from NatWest.
Getting them to think more about themselves and the qualities they might realistically offer an employer was one of the first aims. It formed the focus of an All About Us session, in which the boys had to spell out what they were good at, what their achievements were, and what was holding them back.
"They were amazingly open about themselves," said Susan Philip from Southern Water. This was evident in the posters on the walls. One category was Problems. "Short temper, sucking thumb, playing truant", wrote one boy. Another said: "Smoking, stepfather, hand righting (sic), reading, trouble at school."
Much of the time was spent in showing the boys practicalities like how to fill in a form or compile a curriculum vitae. "They hang on our words, they see us as different from teachers because we're from the real world," said Ben Goodman from building firm Wilmott Dixon.
One session was devoted to the crucial matter of coping with interviews. Mark Osborne from NatWest gave the group a series of tips: how to prepare for an interview, how to behave during it ("No wet lettuce handshakes please"), what sort of questions to expect and to ask. Then the boys took part in mock interviews. Some were very withdrawn, and hardly able to go beyond "Yes" and "No" in responding to questions; one boy had to have his winning of a national woodwork competition dragged out of him. Others were articulate and fluent, and showed a ready understanding of the need to sell themselves.
Verbal skills were tested when they had to sell their prototype models to potential investors. Working in teams of six to make their products (hovercraft, television, car) had not been easy. But the challenge of having to sell them "in the market place" brought out abilities of several, including the least skilled writers.
"The boys began with little comprehension of what was required," said Ve Robinson, "but some improved dramatically over the two days. They now understand that getting work involves a lot of effort."