STORY: Use of technology teaching not only to improve pupils' level of academic achievement but also their general social skills has paid off for a special needs school in Essex.
The Heath Residential School in Colchester is a purpose-built facility for secondary age boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties. The school usually has around 45 pupils. In 1992 it opted to implement the strategy by exploiting teaching materials and financial help available under the Technology Enhancement Programme managed by the Engineering Council.
Geoff East, TEP co-ordinator and technology teacher at the school, says that the first step was to refit an existing workshop facility that previously contained little more than a collection of obsolescent woodworking equipment. Some Pounds 20,000 was spent re-equipping the facility with a mix of much more up-to-date manual and powered hardware including a milling machine, lathe, mechanical hacksaw and heat treatment equipment.
The work was carried out by Essex County Council's Equipment Maintenance Unit (EMU). Half the money was provided by the TEP's funding organisation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. The school opted first to base work around the TEP handbook Manufacturing Engineering for 14 to 16-year-olds. But Geoff East says it had to simplify the material to develop a foundation course which emphasised basic skills and principles.
The course centres on safety, basic workshop techniques and simple confidence building exercises. This was coupled with the use of self-assessment sheets by the pupils in which they graded their own competence in skills such as marking out, measuring and drilling on 1-5 rating. Given the generally impaired self-confidence of the pupils it was simply not feasible to start them off with "open-ended" design problem.
But helping the pupils develop social skills through contact with local industry - breaking down the "cocoon" that Geoff East says can sometimes envelop pupils with special needs - was an integral part of the venture. Two local companies, both of them part of the GEC group, became involved with the school early on as industrial partners. Woods of Colchester manufactures fans and fan systems. GEC Alsthom Paxman Diesels, as the name indicates, makes diesel engines for a wide range of applications including marine and rail traction.
Apprentices from the companies led groups of pupils through project work either at the school or in the training facility at the factory. A typical project involved the design and manufacture of a tool box from sheet metal.
The pupils' response was varied, though care staff were always on-hand to provide support. Changes of any sort need to be introduced carefully into a special needs environment. Pupils can easily be thrown by disturbances to routine. The initiative was aimed first at Year 8 pupils and, after encouraging results, has been extended a year downwards into the Year 7 age-group. There is, says Geoff East, now a perceptible difference in atmosphere. The pupils "have gained in confidence and the school has a science-technology link that wasn't there previously".
Moreover, the same process has operated in reverse. According to Malcolm Frost, personnel director at GEC Asthom, the apprentices involved - 19 and 20-year-olds completing craft apprenticeships in engine fitting and testing or in one case as an electrician - have learned leadership and organisational skills. He candidly admits this development was a bonus, since the company initially saw its involvement in purely altruistic terms as simply an exercise in community relations.
The school now has a similar link with a specialist training organisation, Portals Training Centre. It is also aiming to expand its use of TEP materials by exploring the Electronics Handbook. Once again, it intends to smooth the way with some preliminary work. A design and build project for a simple electric car has already been carried out to familiarise the pupils with basic concepts such as circuits and switches.
But Geoff East is confident that with the aid of their previous experience of TEP materials, the pupils should be able to tackle the handbook proper. The first unit in the book involves designing and making a moisture sensor and involves the use of components such as transistors, light emitting diodes (LEDs), buzzers and resistors.
* Details of the Technology Enhancement Programme from the Engineering Council, tel: 0171 240 7891