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Pupils from The Ridings School in Halifax have won a Construction Industry Training Board achievement award. Last year a dozen of them opted out of the classroom, donned hard hats and spent a couple of terms at the local technical college studying vocational skills bricklaying, carpentry and joinery.
Funded by the board and local training and enterprise councils, The Ridings project is typical of the business links being forged between the construction industry, schools and further education colleges.
Unlike other industries where big blue chip companies run their own business link schemes, construction is a special case. Les Greenacre, Construction and Industry Training Board's pre-vocational education manager, explains: "Construction is an industry on the move. The big factory on your doorstep is always going to be there - but a builder may only be on site six months before he moves on. It's not long enough for teachers to forge a relationship."
Construction is a natural choice for disaffected male pupils. Ridings headteacher Anna White says: "These were kids who were in danger of becoming totally disenchanted with school. The construction course meant they were doing something they could see the value of."
The board runs business links on behalf of member companies via a network of 220 regional curriculum centres. With an annual budget of around pound;1 million, the board is involved in 9,000 schools - a third of the UK total. The curriculum centres provides support for GNVQ training, school projects such as minor landscaping - building playground shelters, raised flowerbeds and barbecues - as well as arranging teacher placements and pupil visits. It is the biggest partnership business links programme in the country. Mr Greenacre says: "We seek to enhance our own spending in schools with matched funding. We negotiate for support from local TECs and enterprise partnerships. The money pays for supply cover for teachers as well as college tuition fees" But the board does not fund capital building works. Any work done by local builders in school has to involve the pupils and it has to provide genuine support for the curriculum. Small scale construction projects can involve maths, design and technology, geography and the environment.
Pupil involvement in construction projects helps cement teamwork and there is no substitute for the excitement of visiting a major construction project. Ridings children have visited the Middlesbrough stadium, and in London the staple school visit has been to the Jubilee Line extension workings. Mr Greenacre says: "Other employers might offer computer simulations and office-based tasks, but construction is breathtaking stuff. Sitting in a classroom you cannot imagine the sheer scale of major civil engineering project. It is what sets our industry apart."
But while the excitement of the building site may tempt some youngsters, the board is having to work hard to counter the image of an industry tarnished by periodic high unemployment, long hours and relatively low pay. And now that the industry is enjoying a modest boom, construction companies are finding they have to compete to attract a diminishing pool of school leavers.
This is as true in the urban as in rural areas. Terry Flowers of family building firm Jotcham and Kendall runs business links at the CITB curriculum centre at Wootton-under Edge in Gloucestershire. He says: "We can't get skilled trades for love nor money. The few highly skilled craftsmen there are can name their own price".
Mr Flowers is pinning his hopes on business links and visits his local secondary, Katharine Lady Berkeley School, for its annual career fair. He plans to invite teachers to visit a local building project - the refurbishment and conservation of historic listed almshouses. "It's an amazing project involving stone masonry and some complicated carpentry and joinery. We have just enough skilled workers on our books."
Mr Greenacre adds: "It's important for local construction companies to build relationships with 15-16-year-olds so that they can get the pick of the crop."
But while businesses such as banks or travel agents can set up workplace simulations in the classroom or allow pupils access to staff training facilities, construction training is more difficult to organise. Building sites are hazardous places and contractors are working to tight deadlines. College participation in business links is essential if schools want pupils to acquire hands-on skills - or a GNVQ.
After a taster of what the construction industry has to offer, The Ridings School plans to run construction GNVQs in the next academic year. Pupils have responded well to the construction challenge. Colin Potter, Huddersfield technical college's construction curriculum centre co-ordinator says: "They covered a lot of ground, from basic setting up plumbing and levelling to turning mortars and constructing a brick wall in basic English bond. They certainly impressed our lecturers."