Let's go to school and build a bungalow

Miranda Fettes

They haven't secured planning permission yet, but construction crafts pupils at Peebles High are hoping that nothing will prevent them from building a house in the school grounds.

The idea is that the S3 Skills for Work pupils will face the same challenges a developer would, to gain first-hand experience of the industry and make the project as authentic as possible.

The collaboration between Peebles High and developers the Muir Group is the first of its kind. While it is not the first initiative involving a Scottish school and a building firm - Graeme High in Falkirk and Cala Homes began working together last year to highlight the range of roles in the construction industry - it will be the first actual building project.

The partnership began as an informal chat between the Borders school's headteacher, John Brown, and Muir Group founder and chairman John Muir. Mr Brown, a former pupil of Mr Muir, who taught technical subjects before becoming a developer, was explaining the difficulty in delivering Skills for Work courses in a school which is 20 miles from the nearest college. The school was already running the course on-site, with rudimentary bricklaying out in the open. "They were working outside in the rain," says Mr Muir. "They clearly needed some form of building."

He raised it with the company's board and the idea, for the Muir Group to provide expertise, labour and materials and meet all construction costs, sprang into life.

Under the guidance of Muir Group workers, headed by Mr Muir's son Ian together with Scottish Borders Council, the pupils will build the outer shell of a house, close to the school building. Once the building is completed - hopefully by the end of the session - the facility will be used to teach bricklaying, plumbing, painting and decorating, electrical skills, slating and tiling and carpentry.

"On the outside, it will look like a house," explains Mr Brown. "On the inside, it will be a straightforward rectangular bungalow full of ideas, design, set pieces and technology that will encompass all the trades. Next year, we can start using it as a training centre for construction crafts."

The pupils hope to incorporate mini solar tiles, possibly a wind turbine and other renewables in the building. They will also have to decide how to heat the building.

Mr Brown believes the project, which encompasses enterprise in education, meets multiple objectives. While it has been conceived to provide a permanent home for Skills for Work courses, he says its utility will be cross-curricular, in line with A Curriculum for Excellence.

It may all sound well and good, but perhaps more than a little premature, given that planning permission has not yet been applied for, let alone granted. And will the school and planning authority be open to accusations of bias if they are seen to be pushing the application through?

Mr Brown smiles. "We are anticipating planning objections," he says, implying that some neighbours can be wholly relied upon to object to anything.

The council, meanwhile, assures it "will be dealt with in the same way as any other planning application".

Mr Muir believes the project's value lies in its authenticity. "Young people are expected to make critical life choices at a very early stage," he says. "Any chance they have to gain an insight into the reality of working life ahead of making these should be grasped."

Mr Brown, meanwhile, wants to see greater "equity of delivery" of national schemes. "The traditional Determined to Succeed Skills for Work model is that schools send pupils to colleges, but it's not always possible," he argues. "The provision has inequities of delivery for geographically-disadvantaged schools."

Peebles is a consistently high-performing school with a good academic record. "It's very easy to say it's fine and stick with that," he says, "but government and society want more from their schools in the future. Hopefully, people can take inspiration from this model and replicate it in other areas."

Peebles High was named "most enterprising secondary school" in the 2008 Scottish Education Awards.

John Brown, Peebles High rector, spoke recently at the Scottish Learning Festival, in a seminar on "opportunities for embedding enterprise skills for life and work"


Seven S6 pupils in the school's "senior leadership initiative" have taken on the task of overseeing the Peebles High building project, from applying for planning permission and consultation with neighbours, to conclusion. The initiative is a venture of headteacher John Brown, in which all sixth years can choose from 16 leadership options "to give them total trust".

Philip Carters, a member of the S6 project management group, says: "We want to have planning approved and a building warrant by December, so the house can be built and completed by June."

A group in last year's S6 submitted a formal proposal to the Muir Group, outlining the project and requesting funding.

Other leadership initiative projects include the yearbook, working with the local newspaper, and a team seeking to bid for Commonwealth funding to build a sports facility for the school. One period per week is allocated for the leadership scheme, and the groups are entirely self-directed.

"We've got a lot of really competent individuals, and it's about that transition from school to a responsible life beyond," says Mr Brown. "It's about developing life skills in leadership and team-building."

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Miranda Fettes

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