A strong pitch for tents

Gerald Haigh on a constructive way to bridge the primary and secondary divide. Asking children to design and make structures (or even models of them) in which people can live seems destined to end in frustration as they realise that they have taken on something they cannot manage. Too many technology projects have come to grief in this way.

Think not of conventional buildings, however, but of tents and you realise that boundary of possibility has been crossed. A tent, after all, is made of fabric stretched over a frame. The fabric can be cut with scissors. The frame can be made, say, of metal rods brazed together using simple joints.

The whole presents a range of challenges which all relate to the school curriculum - deciding the shape and nature of the frame and of its joints; the patterning and cutting of the fabric; joining the fabric to the frame; stressing it over the frame so that it is taut and secure; adding weather flaps and fastenings; decorating the tent or using motifs; securing it to the ground. For children with access to a good secondary school technology department all of these tasks will be difficult, but with teacher guidance none will be impossible.

It was for this reason that a group of Northamptonshire schools - six primaries (Yardley Hastings, Little Houghton, Denton, Grendon, Brafield on the Green, Cogenhoe) - working with staff at Wollaston Secondary School decided that designing and making model tents would form the basis of their "Futuristic Village" bid for money from Toyota Science and Technology Education Fund last term.

The schools are small - the biggest has only 23 pupils in Year 6; there are only 60 Year 6 pupils in total. All the expert advice to such schools is that they should work together on specialist areas: these have done so as the Ashby Cluster.

Common projects, though, are costly in time and resources. Money from the Toyota fund, which aims to help schools develop science and technology in the national curriculum in partnership with local business, and from the Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, Training and Enterprise oiled the wheels. The teachers also donated many hours of their time.

First, a group of 15 pupils from the schools researched tent making and design at museums and with a local marquee manufacturer. Then, during a climactic activity week, all 60 Year 6 pupils came to Wollaston's technology department, where they used many textile and metal and woodworking techniques, supported by information technology.

When I visited, the technology area was alive with activity - there were 60 hard-working primary pupils, supported by their staff and Wollaston teachers. I saw children handling metal - brazing and cutting - in ways which would not have been available in the primary schools, and I also saw some pupils coming to terms with, and learning valuable lessons from, the consequences of impatient and incomplete work at the design stage.

Finally, the tents were put up to be admired in the sunshine just before the end of the summer term. Was it all worth it?

Mike Rose, deputy head at Wollaston and one of the leaders of the project, thought so, and believed that it had promoted inter-school links as well as motivated children and staff. "There's been tremendous enthusiasm. We've seen children with a range of abilities working together, and teachers from a number of different backgrounds, as well as parents and classroom helpers and technicians," he said.

Designing and making interesting and innovative tents - or models of them - seems such a good technology-based inter-disciplinary project involving design, textiles, printing, working out stresses, fabrication in metal (or wood) history, anthropology . . . the list goes on . . . that it makes me wonder if other schools have tried it. If so, can they let us know?

For details of the Toyota fund, contact your local education business partnership, or teacher placement organiser

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