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My Left-field Lesson - Under construction

If school is a building site, turn the situation to students' advantage

If school is a building site, turn the situation to students' advantage

The pond has been drained, old buildings have been torn down and the grounds are full of heavy-duty earth-moving and construction machinery. Sydenham School in Lewisham, South London, is a building site.

One response might have been to batten down the hatches, leaving the builders and developers to their own devices on the construction site while students and staff at the girls' school hunkered down in temporary classrooms and adapted to new routes around the campus.

"Not so at Sydenham," headteacher Carolyn Unsted says. "This is the greatest change (at the school) in over 50 years and, given that we are a Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) specialist school, the challenge to staff from the beginning was to find ways to tie the construction into the girls' learning and view it as an opportunity rather than a disturbance."

The response has been imaginative and varied and has spread far beyond Stem classrooms. For example, the school's careers service got the ball rolling a year ago by holding a careers fair designed to "storyboard" the development. There were stands run by companies and organisations involved in every stage of the project, from planning and architecture to IT consultancy, landscaping and premises management.

Crucially, each exhibitor was asked to send female employees to the event. "As well as enhancing the curriculum, our goal has been to ensure that the girls make the connection between their studies and careers requiring the maths, science and engineering they've learned," Unsted says.

This has been particularly emphasised for the dozens of students in lower years who attend after-school Stem clubs. After considerable negotiation over health and safety, they have been venturing on-site to talk to the specialists overseeing the building work.

"We met a piling engineer last week," says Maja Zielinska, aged 12. "She explained all about the importance of soil types and friction when it comes to driving piles and how the concrete needs to be reinforced. It certainly opened my eyes to possible engineering careers."

English and geography have also benefited, with plans afoot to use the development as a stimulus for a writing competition and a renewable resources and sustainability project. Students will be challenged to describe and design their "ideal schools of the future".

"We'll be inviting the girls to use lots of new architectural vocabulary, but also to let their imaginations go wild," says English teacher Ally Lister. "I hope the new building won't be a disappointment to them in the end; it's unlikely to include Star Trek-like `teleportation' facilities, for example."

Perhaps most surprising of all is the response of the textiles department to the sometimes bizarre sight of nearby demolition work and piledriving equipment rising hundreds of feet into the air.

"We took on a Pop Art project based on the monumental, playful, floppy sculptures created by Claes Oldenburg," says textiles subject leader Karen Martin. "It began with students Photoshopping everyday classroom items on to pictures of the school, and in the end we settled on creating some giant 8ft-long pencils, made from all-weather plastic material and stuffed with huge quantities of wadding."

"This is just the beginning," Unsted says. "Wait until the 60m tower crane arrives on site. I know the teachers have plans to make good use of that."

Jerome Monahan is a teacher and freelance writer. See examples of Claes Oldenburg's work at

Top 10 construction industry resources

1. Building knowledge

These worksheets and assignments give students an insight into construction projects, social and economic issues that arise in the building trade and potential jobs within the industry.


2. Joining the dots

Assess students' knowledge of tools and procedures for a joinery task, as well as the hazards they may encounter, with this step-by-step guide.


3. Fill the gaps

Explain how to build and insulate a cavity wall correctly with this illustrated presentation.


4. Working with wood

From cutting techniques to risk assessments, these tasks will evaluate students' carpentry skills and knowledge.


5. Spark a debate

Increase your students' understanding of all things electrical - and switch them on to safety concerns - with these resources on topics including logic circuits, resistors, continuity testing, test instruments and electric shocks.


6. A solid base

Introduce students to the processes and equipment needed to lay flooring with these resources from the Welsh government.


7. Skills applications

With a focus on safety, this Teachers TV video looks at how literacy, numeracy and information communications technology skills are used in the construction industry.


8. Industrial care

Explore health, safety and welfare in the construction industry with the help of this PowerPoint and worksheet.


9. Plumbing pointers

Run through the many tools and materials of the plumbing trade with these presentations, which include photos, labels and explanations.


10. Demolish danger

Learn about the hazards and difficulties demolition workers face - from exploding asbestos to building collapse - and how they can be tackled in this video shared by BBC Class Clips - Design amp; Technology.


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