Bring a friend

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Design and technology teachers are hard to find, so their association has asked them to enlist friends and relatives. Steven Hastings reports on one family affair.

David Spendlove, senior lecturer in design and technology education at Liverpool John Moores University, is especially fond of one of his students. He sees her out of college hours. They are so close he can often tell what she's thinking. They have, in the past, even shared a bath. Gillian, a first-year student on David's course, is also his twin.

As part of an initiative to tackle the severe shortage of Damp;T teachers, the Design and Technology Association (Data) has urged those already involved in the profession to enlist a friend.

Mr Spendlove didn't need to look far for a potential recruit to his course, which prepares students to teach Damp;T in primary or secondary schools. His sister jumped at the chance when he suggested she try her hand as a teacher.

Alan Breckon, Data's chief executive, believes this kind of personal appeal can succeed where other recruitment strategies have failed. "It's all very well running flashy advertising campaigns in cinemas, but nothing beats word of mouth," he says. "Damp;T teachers need to promote their profession in a positive way. If your friends and family see that you enjoy your job, it might persuade them to think along similar lines."

The shortage of Damp;T teachers has reached crisis point. The idea of asking people to recruit a friend or relative was born out of desperation - a last-ditch attempt to boost numbers. "Some schools are not even bothering to advertise for Damp;T teachers," says Mr Breckon. "They've given up hope of recruiting new staff. Instead, they are bumping up class sizes or trying to marginalise the subject within the timetable. It's a frightening scenario."

Gillian Spendlove, 36, is attracted by the idea that she can make a difference to a struggling subject. "When David suggested I think about it, that was the push I needed," she says. "He's always been very positive. He emphasised the good points - I could have a flexible career that fitted in with my family. And it was reassuring to know that if I took the plunge I would have a very good chance of finding employment at the end."

Damp;T has been particularly hard hit by the recruitment crisis as graduates with design expertise are often drawn towards lucrative careers in technology. "The ability to solve problems, to work on hundreds of projects at any one time - that's what makes a good Damp;T teacher," explains David Spendlove. "It's also exactly what the big companies are looking for."

But there is one thing teaching has in its favour - it offers almost guaranteed employment for those who have retrained. With only 100 Damp;T teaching students set to graduate in England this year, schools are headhunting the best talent. Courses are already fielding calls from heads desperate to secure the services of final-year students.

"We have a 100 per cent employment rate for our graduates," says Mr Spendlove. "Compare that to an area such as product design, where the rate is about 30 per cent. Many young designers set out thinking they're going to be the next James Dyson. But they find it tough going. We're promoting a career in teaching as a secure and rewarding alternative."

The good news for the adventurous is that Britain isn't alone in suffering from a shortage of Damp;T teachers. Mr Spendlove points out that design and technology is a universal language - offering job opportunities in countries as far afield as Australia and Singapore. These rosy employment prospects mean mature students - such as Gillian Spendlove - retrain with confidence. After a successful career as a freelance costume designer for theatre companies, she found travelling around with a young family difficult and decided the time was right for a fresh challenge.

"Using the design skills I already had, it was a logical change of direction. Originally I thought it best if I trained somewhere else, rather than on David's course. But it turned out it was just what I needed - with a strong emphasis on textiles. Because the course is unique in equipping me to teach key stages 2 and 3, I could keep my options open. So I was stuck with him."

But Ms Spendlove has found it's taken a little while to get used to being taught by her brother. "If I try to lie and make up excuses for not having done my work, well, he knows the truth - he's my twin. For a while I thought, 'He's not going to boss me around, I'm his sister', but you get used to it."

Mr Spendlove admits that teaching his twin sister is "an odd feeling", and that for all his efforts to treat her as just another student, years of playing together sometimes make the classroom experience strange."My voice changes when I address her; it becomes more brotherly, less teacherly. The other students may have found it a bit weird at first."

Family links aside, Ms Spendlove is typical of the students that the Damp;T course at John Moores encourages. The university has a policy of flexibility to cater for those with families - parents on Mr Spendlove's course can take half-term week off and make up the time later.

He believes that attracting mature students is one way of beating the recruitment crisis, and his students come with a variety of experience. Some are using the financial security gained from a career in industry to enable them to try a new challenge. Others have already been working in schools as classroom technicians.

Mr Spendlove says former technicians usually make excellent teachers. They are used to dealing with children and, having observed a range of teaching methods at first hand, "they know what works and what doesn't".

In return for a flexible policy, the university reaps the benefit of having mixed classrooms. Mr Spendlove enjoys teaching mature students, believing they can show the younger students a thing or two about time management. "After all, no one can complain about their workload when there are all these people juggling family commitments and still managing to cope."

Alan Breckon recognises that older recruits have to face a variety of challenges, including the rapid pace of change within the subject. "Damp;T is very different now to what teachers experienced when they were pupils. I think people find it comforting to be able to go back and teach what they were taught, but Damp;T students can't do that. It's more of a challenge, it's moving on all the time."

Working to a school's budget - rather than a multinational's - can also be a learning experience. "It can be a bit of a shock for those who have been working in industry to arrive in a school and find that the annual budget for each pupil is pound;6.19," says Mr Breckon. "It's not easy to adjust to if you've been at one of the big companies with the latest hardware and materials to hand."

Mr Spendlove believes that choosing to spend a few years with the high-budget support of big business need not exclude a career in teaching. He says it's possible to get the best of both worlds and is keen to dispel the idea of teaching as a lifetime's vocation. Those with a former life in design-related jobs could be the key to plugging the recruitment gap.

"If someone can come to teaching at the age of 40 or 50 and give 10 years to the profession, then that's a valuable contribution. They bring experience and worldly wisdom to the job."

What others see as a recruitment crisis, Mr Spendlove prefers to see as a time of opportunity. "I try to stress the positives. The vacancies are there, the training is there, and with golden hellos and free tuition fees, the financial incentive is there. We just need to persuade people to give it a go."

Not that he promised his twin sister it would be easy. Certainly there's no question of favouritism. In fact, she reckons she gets a tougher time of it than most, with the university scrutinising her assessments for signs of family bias.

But she does have the trump card. "David knows if he was ever really mean to me, I'd go and tell mum."

David Spendlove can be contacted at Liverpool John Moores University on 0151 231 3742

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