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Reality bytes;Cover feature

"Painters hate designers," says Rab Walker, principal teacher of art and design at Dunfermline High School. "I am a painter. But 50 per cent of our practical activity, from S1 to S6, is design. Some schools get round it by doing paintings and then sticking lettering on them, but we have decided to embrace it - we take chances and we might get egg on our chin, but some are really paying off."

There are not many secondary school pupils who have successfully carried out design commissions for local businesses, schools and hospitals, but Dunfermline High pupils are responsible for screensavers in use at C R Smith, for safety-conscious interior design at Bellyeoman Primary School, and for signage at Queen Margaret Hospital. A sixth-year pupil is now working on a touch-screen system to help visitors and patients find their way round the hospital and local football team Dunfermline Athletic has commissioned the school to produce banners for the stands, a CD-Rom charting the club's history and a touch-screen interpretative guide for visitors to the ground.

Dunfermline High's success in forging links with the world beyond the school gates began, aptly enough, with the school's community arm. Mike Joiner, head of the centre for community use, wanted an art teacher to deliver evening classes in Art Dabbler. He gave the art department an Apple Mac and, after initial reluctance, the idea took hold. Now the whole school is networked, and PCs have opened doors for staff and pupils.

"It's about living in the real world," says Joiner. "Local authorities and schools need to keep up with the demands of industry. We have to supply skilled people so that industry can compete with Japan and the US. We want to be dictating the pace, not tagging along. The world doesn't run on English or maths, it runs on creativity."

Art teacher Richard Wotherspoon agrees. "A lot of teachers are still scared of computer technology in the classroom," he says, "but when it comes to design nowadays, there is no other choice. It's cut a swathe through all the traditional practices."

Therefore Dunfermline High's art department now has a row of PCs along one wall and staff who see themselves as facilitators and design clients. "The kids are computer-literate when they walk in here," says Walker, "We just teach them how to use the software and make design real for them."

To that end the school has organised a millennium exhibition at the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, which Walker sketchily describes as "a multimedia presentation representing the life of Dunfermline High School in a rap way". The language may be vague, but the reality is convincing. Sixth-year student, David Cleland, shows me some of the 3D graphics he has been working on. One piece represents a flight over a futuristic city, with planes looping round tower blocks and over busy streets. It is, by coincidence, exactly the brief given to a professional company providing a video for The Lighthouse in Glasgow. And to my eyes, Dunfermline's version is miles better.

A Scottish Vocational Qualification class is now in the art department. Most of the students are at traditional desks working out design ideas on paper, and three or four are at PCs, trying out lettering styles on screen. "You've got to control computer use," says Wotherspoon, "and make sure they've got their ideas sorted out before they go on to the computer. Sometimes it can be a camouflage for a lack of ideas and you find them just sticking together quirky images that don't communicate anything."

Used properly, Wotherspoon believes computers can make art and design a more inclusive subject. "You often see people who are creative, but who can't manifest their ideas well in drawing. A lot of kids, by the time they come to us, have been told they can't draw, their confidence has taken a kicking and their self-esteem is low, but less able pupils do respond well to working on screen. It's still important to wrestle around with an idea on a piece of paper, just doodling, letting your mind wander creatively."

Design at Dunfermline High is about opening doors. In the past, the design briefs on offer to higher students might have been to design a chair or a shoe. Walker brandishes a fat folder of detailed choices on offer today:

"design a Love Room for the Nightclub called Life. Nothing smutty - just good fun and accommodation for 50 lucky high-spending members. Its appearance should be hi-tech heaven with communication within and out with the club via technology"; "design a millennium architectural structure for Dunfermline High SchoolI to be fully portable and weather-proof"; "design a range of domestic products which commemorate and celebrate the millennium and will be marketed through Poundstretcher".

Walker's latest enthusiasm is for something called a rapid prototyping machine that can produce three-dimensional product design prototypes in a carbon polymer material. And he has just forged an Internet link with Celebration High School in Florida: "We can impact on their lives and vice versa. It will let us see America."

New projects seem to crop up here on a daily basis, and even the craziest seem to make it from drawing board to actuality - there is nothing virtual about this department's grasp on reality.

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