A bomb scare at Dixons City Technology College in Bradford at 5pm one afternoon recently meant staff and students had to stand outside the premises for an hour. They were given the all-clear at 6pm. "The students cheered and ran straight back in," according to Brian Russell, the school's design and technology faculty manager. "The fire brigade couldn't believe it. One officer said, 'What is it with this school?'"
There is no one answer to that. The building itself is a smart brick and glass construction with cheery blue and green paintwork which stands out like a beacon among the warehouses and run-down council estates. Inside, it is a combination of cool chrome, light wood, and a spacious atrium with balconies and wide steps, all of which help lend an American-style collegiate atmosphere.
Then there are the facilities: state-of-the-art computers and machinery for everything from food and knitting to graphics and manufacturing; a suite of science laboratories; impressive design and technology areas; a fully-equipped catering kitchen; information technology rooms; even a conference room.
No wonder other schools are envious. When Dixons CTC opened five years ago, parents queued up to send their children there. The college still gets three applications for every place. In that first year it took 22 of the brightest pupils from one local school alone, four teachers from another. The result: political isolation, an anti-Dixons lobby at the headteachers' conference, and a city-wide sports boycott.
Opposition has "mellowed", Brian Russell says. But, because Dixons continues to take students from the city's 40 middle schools, it remains unpopular. "We're never going to be loved," Brian Russell admits, "but we accept that now. "
There are attempts to heal the wounds. Principal John Lewis encourages other headteachers to visit and see the effect the college has on students, their dedication, achievement and discipline. There is talk (though as yet little action) of sharing facilities. Most educational links so far seem to be outside Bradford - partnerships with two Technology College Initiative schools, and with four others in the North in the Smallpeice school-centred teacher training programme. However, Dixons is pulling out of the programme in January: "It's a good idea which hasn't worked for us," Brian Russell says, one big problem being that it cuts across the college's American-style academic year.
Russell, a former 3-D designer, used to work in the state system, though he moved to Dixons from an independent girls' school. He is well aware of how privileged he and his colleagues are. "What attracted me was being in a place where my subject was so well resourced, and high up in the curriculum. At other schools, design and technology was bottom of the list, after PE. Here, the curriculum can revolve around DT."
His aim is "to create the best design technology department in the country. I reckon we're halfway there." John Lewis agrees: "We see ourselves as making a national contribution to Cadcam (computer aided design and manufacture), bringing us up to the levels of manufacturing industry."
Dixons' brochure talks about the "emphasis on an understanding of industry, commerce and enterprise". All around the college are examples of this: the reception desk designed by an 11-year-old student; a wall display of dominoes for the blind; flashing lights for cyclists or walkers being invented in the electronics room; carrier bags emblazoned with the name of the CTC's sponsor, the eponymous High Street electrical goods chain (which liked sixth-former Stacy Buckley's design so much it has used it on 20 million bags).
Brian Russell accepts that "some people may say we're too commercially biased." Unsurprisingly, he disagrees on this point: "Dixons don't impose on us at all. They are wholly supportive, stay in the background, and are unbelievably proud of what they're involved in."
What the bag and all the other products reveal is "take-home value". Under the May 1994 draft design and technology Order, which Dixons CTC is subscribing to, products have to be made for a purpose. That fits in with Brian Russell's own definition of design and technology: "It's to do with making technology fit human needs. There's no point having a sophisticated burglar alarm system if it's too ugly to put in your hallway. Or a toy no child wants to play with. In schools we make an awful lot of things that don't address the questions of whether it's desirable, marketable and useable."
Martin Daly, head of design and technology at Dixons CTC, agrees: "So much in schools stops at the Blue Peter level, particularly because of lack of resources and pressure of time."
For Martin Daly, who moved from a state comprehensive in Manchester, the main advantage of CTCs is "the opportunity to work close to the cutting edge of current developments in technology".
From the start, Dixons has established links with "hundreds" of companies, some of which have trained college staff in the use of their machines. A common criticism is that CTCs are about expensive, but unused, equipment. The National Design and Technology Education Foundation estimated that 40 per cent of capital investment in CTCs should be spent on staff training. Dixons spends 1 per cent of its budget, Pounds 30,000, primarily on in-house "cascade" training.
After at first employing experienced teachers, Dixons has come to rely more and more on recently qualified - and cheaper - staff. Brian Russell acknowledges the difficulties of finding suitably experienced staff who are prepared to work long hours (8.20am to 5pm) and five-term years, to develop their own curriculum material, to be experimental, to team teach and share ideas. "We look for people who want to be part of an energetic, vibrant team and with a bit of vision."
To date, he has found eight full-time staff to fit that bill in his department, as well as two teacher technicians and an assistant technician. One of the two most recent members of staff is setting up the textiles department, the other is the Cadcam expert.
Helen Lees has run the food technology section since August, moving from the pioneering Kingshurst CTC in Birmingham. She says: "I see CTCs as positive, forward-thinking places where even a young teacher can try things out, develop their own curriculum, and not be put down." Having applied for a couple of jobs within mainstream schools, she is well aware of their ambivalence towards CTCs. "They like the fact we're innovatory, but they're cautious of that as well. They think you'll want to change things in six months."
So what of the quality of teaching at Dixons? Brian Russell and John Lewis point to their last GCSE exam results, which were 15 per cent better than the national average, 45 per cent higher than equivalent Bradford schools. And not just in DT - 85 per cent of students taking English got a grade C or higher, "which is nothing to do with technology, but with the quality of teaching, " John Lewis says.
"The teacher becomes more of a facilitator or director of studies than a talk and chalk merchant, which teaches the students self-reliance, discipline and responsibility. I still find it amazing the way they operate. Because, when you step away from all the glamour and newness, this is essentially an inner city comprehensive. But it doesn't feel like it, and they don't feel like the stereotypical Grange Hill lot."
The contentious selection procedures of its early days - taking the brightest and best pupils - have been toned down. Dixons now aims for a better balance of ability, gender and ethnic background among its 900 students. Entry procedures include exercises to test group work co-operation.
Students are almost over-enthusiastic, queueing outside at 8am, taking work home, pleading to be allowed in at weekends and during holidays. Brian Russell says: "We have more problems with children overdoing it than with not doing it." Over-enthusiasm is monitored as carefully as non-attendance. But, as John Lewis says: "We aim high with them. There's a concept of continual improvement. We run Dixons like a business but a business with a human touch."