All in a day's work
In a small, dimly lit workshop, intermittently illuminated by the flare of a blowtorch and the glow of melting steel, Fritha Durham hammers carefully at a small, moulded piece of metal. It is an unfamiliar, eccentric work environment. Under a sign marked "ancient arms and armour" are scattered debris of the trade: foot-guards, visor helmets and fleur-de-lis stencils.
In the storeroom next door, a fibreglass horse is decked out in full body armour.
While she is hammering the knuckles of a miniature gauntlet, Ms Durham cannot resist glancing up to check out her surroundings. Unlike her co-workers, intently shaping and hammering on the benches next to her, this is Ms Durham's first and only day in the workshop. She has swapped the trappings of her usual work environment - textbooks, red pen and classroom register - for the heavy tools of an armour-maker's trade.
When she is not crafting suits of armour, Ms Durham is an English teacher at Pool school in Cornwall. For one day last term, all 100 members of the school's teaching and administrative staff at the 950-pupil comprehensive have been sent out to businesses in the local area. They are spending the day shadowing, observing business practices that might have useful lessons for the classroom.
Several Pool teachers have already been on work placements. But this is the first time the entire staff, including teaching assistants and office administrators, has been sent out simultaneously. It is part of an initiative developed by assistant head Bob Bell and Camborne, Pool and Redruth education action zone with Cornwall Education Business Partnership.
"Subject teachers can seem insular," says Mr Bell. "They're focused on educating for exams, and find it difficult to see the whole needs of the young person. They need an appreciation and understanding of what the world of work is like. And admin staff benefit from the opportunity to look at office practice in another way, and to get involved in what's going on in the school."
At an induction session, representatives from 15 local businesses came to the school to brief participants. Staff were then given six weeks in which to research and arrange their own placements, guided by personal objectives and priorities. Following their day of work experience, they will reconvene with their business counterparts, and offer suggestions and feedback. The induction and the work experience take up a total of two Inset days.
"Teachers can update their own skills and knowledge, finding out about current practices and what the future holds," says Helen Field, who has been co-ordinating the project for the action zone. "We're creating links, so they can take back into the classroom knowledge about the skills that are needed when you go to work."
Creating links to the employment market is the scheme's primary goal, and it is the one that has generated most enthusiasm among the industry partners. John McFarland, managing director of Redruth-based Precision Audio Products, is hosting two members of staff for the day. They will, he believes, leave his office better attuned to the requirements of business.
"The typical business view is that teachers go to school, go to college, then go back to school again," he says. "Teachers send pupils out on work experience, but see no need to gain the same experience themselves. They've got to increase their understanding of what is required, take that knowledge back and transmit it through the schools."
Most of the teachers enthusiastically launch themselves into their new roles, whether caring for tropical birds at a wildlife sanctuary, making a hull with a boat-builder or sorting fungi at a mushroom farm.
Sally Tuson, science teacher at Pool, is spending the day at the Blue Reef aquarium in Newquay. Her duties range from the surreal - looking after young seahorses while their tanks are cleaned - to the mundane - wiping fingermarks off glass tanks and siphoning uneaten food from the water.
During the course of the day, she will observe all aspects of aquarium management, from the scientific aspects of the job to the minutiae of marketing a visitor attraction.
The tourist sector is one of the biggest employers in the region, so Ms Tuson and her temporary employers are keen to develop the link. She takes notes of all the job possibilities, so she can provide information for future school leavers. As she meets aquarium staff, she takes the opportunity to discuss their qualifications and job specifications.
But it is not just the pupils who will benefit. The day at the aquarium, Ms Tuson says, has shown her the practical side of the science she teaches in the classroom. "I've never worked in an aquarium. I've never even owned a fish. So I've learned things I didn't know. For example, they've been showing me how to maintain the right pH levels in the tanks for bacteria to flourish. This would be a useful example of how bacteria can be helpful when we cover it in school with younger kids."
Similarly, Ms Durham, hammering the finishing touches to her gauntlet, can see a use for her new-found skills in the classroom. "In one of the scenes towards the end of Macbeth, Macbeth puts his armour on," she says. "When I read this with the class, we'll stop and have a chat about armour. It makes it more real."
And, she adds, she benefits personally from the change to her daily routine. "It's therapeutic. You're concentrating, but you're concentrating on small details. All I've been thinking about has been making this smoother, doing the right thing, not hitting my hands. You don't have to worry about kids jumping out of the window at the same time."
The chance of a significant change from her everyday routine was the main reason Pool's school secretary, Debbie Martin, chose to spend her day working at Keveths, a local construction company. Shadowing the construction manager, putting together job quotations and visiting rubble-strewn building sites, she says, put her usual, deskbound, dealings with staff and parents into perspective.
"You tend to go around in your own little bubble, going to work every day and doing your own job," she says. "It has made me appreciate that everyone works extremely hard, from the men digging the roads to the people in the office. Everyone has an important part to play in business."
As a result, Ms Martin has learned to appreciate the value of teamwork and the importance of the individual in ensuring the smooth-running of the whole. It has, she says, made her far more sympathetic to the work of others in the school.
Taking part in life outside school, adds Helen Field, enables staff to see the wider relevance of their everyday jobs. "It's a two-way process," she says."It's a chance for employers to find out what's going on in schools, what young people are learning. And staff are picking up skills for the classroom, or for their personal and professional development. It can only be positive."
Cornwall Education Business Partnership: 01872 323 420; www.cornwall.gov.uk businessbu-ip06.htm