The bum's rush
As long as it is regarded as the last resort of the unteachables, the construction industry will not get the skilled workforce it needs - the carpenters, joiners, bricklayers and painters. The problem has been compounded: further education colleges, squeezed for cash, are putting on fewer construction courses since they require expensive equipment. And the demands of the national curriculum also tend to push out construction skills.
That is why, since 1990, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has spent Pounds 7 million on a Construction Curriculum Initiative (CCI). The CITB believes that it has to reach the whole school population if it is to persuade young people that the industry is not a refuge for failures. Otherwise, a major British industry, which accounts for 10 per cent of GDP worth Pounds 1 billion every week and employs as many as one in 14 of Britain's workforce, will be left crippled for want of skills.
The CCI is aimed at everyone from the age of seven to l8, and not just at those who may end up working in the industry. It aims to help every school pupil understand more about the built environment and how it got that way. And it aims to support the take-up of national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications in construction-related subjects among 14 to l8-year-olds.
The CCI has so far reached 5,000 schools, 140 colleges, and 250,000 school pupils. One hundred and twenty-two construction curriculum centres (CCC) co-ordinate the work. These are local networks of schools, colleges and construction employers covering a local education authority area, who jointly agree an agenda of education activities based on construction.
Each CCC is run by a co-ordinator, who may be full time or a school or college teacher, seconded for a few hours each week. The co-ordinator is backed by the construction industry board's own field staff, who help and advise the co-ordinator and make themselves available to go into schools and colleges.
Carol Paton is co-ordinator for Dorset and Somerset. Officially, she works four days a week - two in each county - but in practice the work usually stretches to take up a fifth day. West Country schools have seen a lot of her in recent months.
"I offer help with the homes and houses project. Or when they have a new building going up, I ring up.
"Then perhaps I'll go to a staff meeting and ask, do you think you could use the new building? They suddenly see that they can use it in ways they had not thought of. Then we bring in the contractor and set ground rules - so many children on site, always with hard hats, and so on."
A typical project might involve looking at contrasting building styles of different periods, including local brick-and-flint and modern brick construction. Back at school the pupils could then design and build their own walls, for example.
Last year a National Foundation for Educational Research evaluation showed that the initiative was changing pupils' perceptions of the industry. Twelve per cent of those in schools reached by the CITB thought they were very likely to work in construction after the age of 16, against 7 per cent in non-CITB schools; 39 per cent thought it possible, against 27 per cent in non-CITB school; only l5 per cent were sure they would not, against 29 per cent in non-ClTB schools.
Secondary school teachers told the NFER that students' involvement in construction-related activities helped their key skills development, and primary school teachers said it improved pupils' ability to use numbers.