Four years ago, Peggy Rowe was on the verge of giving up teaching to pursue another grand passion - pig breeding. But when she learnt that there was a vacancy for a headteacher at Reddish Vale school in Stockport, a large 11-16 comprehensive that just happened to include a working farm set right in the centre of the school buildings, it was impossible to resist.
Which might explain why she is so careful to emphasise that the benefits following the school's new status as a technology college should be reaped by the pupils working with the pigs, sheep and hens for agriculture GCSE (the farm is a long way from being a pets corner) and those doing French in the soon-to-to-be revamped language department, as well as maths, science and technology.
"As a parent myself I'm very aware that the title 'technology college' could give the impression that technology was being enhanced at the expense of other subjects. so we have been careful to stress to parents it won't alter the curriculum in the sense of a change of emphasis."
The rationale behind applying for technology college status is to equip the children for work in the 21st century, she says, and you can only do that with industry-standard equipment and input from the companies that are making and using it. "But if anything, spiritual education and the arts become more important when you have a greater focus on technological excellence."
Nor does Reddish see itself as a magnet for scientific or technologically-minded children. There are to be no adjustments to the admissions policy and the staff are determined that their new-found wealth should serve the school's traditional constituency, which is white-working class in an area that falls somewhere between the council estate and the leafy suburb.
The school had already acquired a taste for bidding for money in 1992 under the Technology Schools Initiative, the current scheme's previous incarnation. The result was Pounds 235,000 which was spent on replacing the "dirty, gloomy and obsolete" CDT block with a beautiful airy building equipped with darkrooms, video-editing suites and computers as well as traditional craft workshops.
Finding sponsors and preparing the bid (a three-year plan stating how the money would be spent) for technology college status was time-consuming, sometimes disheartening and constantly shadowed by the spectre of possible failure, says Peggy Rowe. "We knew that 79 schools had put in a bid and only 20 would be selected. I was worried that grant-maintained schools, with their greater experience of these matters, would have the edge. I spent more sleepless nights worrying about how I would manage if we failed than anything else." On the other hand, the school already had a web of contacts with local industry that most local education authority schools would envy.
The process began unpromisingly. Peggy Rowe started by writing to 200 local companies, asking them to commit Pounds 1,000 each, in the hope that if 50 per cent said yes, the school would then make the Pounds 100,000 required. Only two companies, McVitie's and a local brickworks, obliged. "Marks and Spencer` told me they thought Pounds 1,000 was rather a lot, and one multinational said we had the wrong 'profile' for them - obviously they thought we came from the wrong side of the tracks." But persistence paid off; the school eventually secured sponsorship of Pounds 35,000 from two local firms and Pounds 60, 000 from ICL computers in the form of equipment. This will be matched by a capital grant of Pounds 100,000 from the DFEE, plus yearly top-up funding of Pounds 100 per pupil, both of which will be filtered through the LEA, allowing the latter to ensure that the money is spent in line with the targets outlined in the school's three-year plan.The school also joined the CTC Trust, which advised on all stages of the process.
The four main sponsors will be involved in an "ongoing relationship" with Reddish Vale, providing advice on equipment and software, but, Peggy Rowe insists, "they have no hidden agenda - every penny we spend has to go out to competitive tendering. We had to make that clear when we were seeking sponsors. "
Nor is there any danger that business interests will have an excessive influence on the curriculum: "The problem in the past has been the other way round - finding industry governors with the time to be influential." The LEA, Peggy Rowe says, has generally been supportive of the school's application for the new status despite mixed feelings about the nature of the bidding process. Stuart Powell, Stockport's adviser for technology, said: "The bidding competition itself is fairly obnoxious, though we support the idea of encouraging schools with strengths in technology. To focus on any one area of the curriculum is dangerous - the important thing is that new technology is used to support the whole curriculum."
Staff at Reddish all seemed excited by "the chance to dream a little" with the certainty that with the new money they will see the dreams come true, though this was tempered with an awareness that pupils in other schools are equally deserving. "Do I sit here and say that because not everybody can have the money, I'm not going to try to get it for the Reddish pupils?" asked Peggy Rowe rhetorically, "or do I do the best I can for them, especially as they are less likely than most to have computers at home?"