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Laying the base for a solid future

A fast-track course in bricklaying has brought a sense of achievement to the participants. Joe Clancy reports.

It is a brick wall striking enough to adorn the most fashionable of gardens. Dark blue bricks have been put together to form the shape of a city skyline silhouetted against a red brick sky. Gaps have been cleverly cut into the brickwork to simulate windows in skyscrapers.

Remarkably, this wall has been designed and built by apprentices in their second week of a college bricklaying course.

Other walls display elaborate geometric patterns of many colours. One has a fish design, complete with bubbles. All are part of a pilot programme that could revolutionise the way construction crafts are taught in colleges and work-based training schemes.

It makes a change from three-year apprenticeships spent making tea, mixing mortar and running errands with just the odd day spent at college.

This scheme - a partnership between Derby college, a private training provider, and the Learning and Skills Council - aims to offer "a unique and fast-track route to learning the skills of bricklaying" in less than a year.

David Hughes, director of the East Midlands branch of the LSC, is a huge fan and can see it working for other trades too.

He said: "It is about bringing people in and getting them laying bricks from minute one, and by the end of the week they are building walls and arches before they do any theory.

"It is about real bricklayers teaching people how to lay a brick under true building-site conditions. The place where they teach is like a building site.

"They are brought on very quickly to a level two qualification and into a job. The outcome is they are in employment and are skilled in a trade in which there is a regional and a national shortage."

He said Derby college is already looking to replicate the scheme in other trades. "They can see how powerful it is in getting things done quickly," he added.

The third partner in the project is Minett Training who devised and set up the project on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Derby. It is the brainchild of Simon Minett who became a bricklayer after leaving school at 16 with two O-levels. Now, 22 years later, he runs a construction company with an annual turnover of pound;4 million employing 150 people.

He believes in an approach to learning that puts an emphasis on giving trainees pride in themselves and pride in what they do.

In the first pilot programme, which began in January, 16 apprentices completed a national vocational qualification level 1 in brickwork after a 12-week course. They are now working towards a level 2 within nine months.

"The aim is to get them up to level 2 plus so that at the end of nine months they are able to build an extension from a plan, or go onto a site and when given a drawing be able to build on their own.

"Normally an apprentice who achieves level 2 will have to spend at least a year as an improver practising his trade to get to this level of competence, but we aim to bypass that stage."

He makes no bones about the fact that a reason for launching the scheme was to provide skilled, willing and capable bricklayers for his own business.

But, he says, the chief motivation is to make a difference to the lives of often disadvantaged young people by helping them towards a rewarding, worthwhile and well-paid career.

"We are not creating bricklayers, we are building people," he added. "We are trying to build up their confidence and self-worth.

"Social habits change when people have more self-worth. They are not going to drink themselves into oblivion on a Sunday if they are looking forward to going to work on a Monday morning."

He said that the first job they are given is to build a panel wall in a situation where everything is set up to make it as easy as possible for them. "They go home with a real sense of achievement," he explained. "It is designed to give them confidence. If they are given something really difficult to build, they get demoralised if they can't do it. In the past I have hand-picked people to put through college, only to see they have not lasted the course. When they are continually told their work is scruffy, they quit.

"Here we work on steady progression. Theory is delivered in 15 to 20-minute chunks and then they go out and practise what they have learned.

"In the third week they go out on site and do the same job as a qualified bricklayer. They will be working on a complete building together, not just doing the easy bits. At a college they would not get to that level that quickly. The biggest thing about it is that you watch them grow as people."

The key skills section of their apprenticeship is designed to be relevant to the building trade. "If you ask them to calculate the cost of bags of sugar or pounds of bananas they will switch off, but if you ask them to calculate the costs of materials needed for a job, then they are interested," he said.

One of his proteges is an apprentice who had recently served a short prison sentence for assault. The 19-year-old said: "I did two years of an apprenticeship in joinery, but I was just being used as cheap labour. I was learning nothing and being given nothing worthwhile to do. I was bored and I was going out drinking and getting into trouble.

"Things couldn't be better now. I have loved this job from the first day. I have learned a valuable lesson and I am hoping to go as far as I can."

It is attitudes such as this that make Mr Minett want to roll out his training project across the country. "If other colleges give me the same support as Derby college and the LSC, then there is no reason why that can't happen."

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