Babs the builder

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Girls are looking at careers in hard hats. Linda Penney describes how 100 Year 9s responded to a day spent on a pioneering urban design project.Vocational

Of the two million people employed in the UK's building industry, only 10 per cent are female. There are huge opportunities for women in this rapidly-growing sector, although misconceptions and gender stereotyping mean girls may not consider these opportunities seriously when planning their careers; indeed, they may be actively, if misguidedly, discouraged.

At Dame Alice Harpur School, an all girls' school in Bedford, our pupils are encouraged to challenge stereotyping and other barriers to choice and opportunity, to be aspirational and to develop their individual talents. Lily Tomlin, the actress, once said, "The road to success is always under construction." Increasingly, for women, the road to success may be in construction as well.

More than 100 Year 9 pupils were recently given an opportunity to explore this for themselves. The girls were the first pupils in the country to complete a new and complex urban design project during the recent national construction week.

In groups of six or seven, girls became building companies for a day, taking on functional positions within the company. They were working on the development of an attractive urban environment, while addressing the need to build affordable, yet desirable, housing.

Technical help and motivation came from Inspace Partnerships, along with TG Consulting, Construction Skills and Bedfordshire and Luton education business partnership.

They began by designing company logos, before setting to work on their brief. This was to accommodate 100 people in a mixture of six different house and flat styles. Detailed consideration had to be given to access roads, parking, use of open spaces and public amenities such as a play area, teenager facilities and a local shop. This had to be balanced with environmental issues and sustainability.

A two-dimensional layout was completed on a site outline using different coloured card shapes to represent the various house and flat designs. Next, the girls had to take the project through planning permission. Once granted, they worked on scale diagrams of the external elevations of their development and built three-dimensional models.

Companies developed a schedule of works using coloured strips, whose length represented the duration of each operation, to ensure everything would be completed within the 52-week timescale.

The results took various forms. Some companies maximised communal open space by including more flats than houses. Others maximised the number of houses and individual gardens by the creative use of access roads and parking areas. Variations in landscaping planting gave very different looks to similar designs.

The day drew heavily on cross-curricular skills from mathematics, geography and design and technology, as well as an awareness of enterprise. The girls developed economic and business understanding as well as crucial transferable skills, such as working in teams, managing relationships, planning and time management.

Every girl learnt something about her personal strengths and interests. One mentioned how good it was to spend a whole day on one project instead of having to stop when the bell went and move to another subject. Some considered how the female characteristics of consensus and consideration of the needs of others brought an important understanding to the development of the built environment

Linda Penney is head of careers at Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford.

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