On the crest of a wave
Twice a week, dozens of pupils at Turves Green girls school stay behind for extra-curricular activities. Nothing remarkable about that, perhaps, except that the focus of their enthusiasm is engineering, a subject which is suffering something of a national decline. Pupils, girls in particular, continue to turn away from mathematical mechanics and from physics, and higher education courses in engineering remain unfilled.
Things are evidently different at Turves Green, near Longbridge in Birmingham - an area with a long history of mechanical engineering, often associated with the locally dominant car industry. The school is proud to be able to say that it has the largest number of girls going into engineering of any school in the city.
The success of its Young Engineers Club is one of the reasons why the school is this year's winner of the TESEngineering Council Neighbourhood Engineers School of the Year Award.
As many as 80 of its 700 pupils attend the two-hour club. The girls research and design a project - usually something with a specific practical purpose - and then make it themselves.
One of the most successful is a Magical Mystery Maze, a teaching aid to help visually handicapped children learn how to use a pelican crossing. Two girls designed and built a model of a road, and added instructions in braille. They then made a model of the crossing itself, which required them to measure up a real pelican crossing and then master the use of a lathe and a bandsaw.
The work earned the girls a silver CREST (Creativity in Science and Technology) award, and the model crossing has been given to Priestley Smith School for partially sighted children in Birmingham.
The Young Engineers Club is supported by local employers, including two of the best known, Rover and Cadbury, who provide materials and expertise in the shape of the "neighbourhood engineers" which give the award its name; employees come into the school to help the pupils and talk about their work. Factory visits are also arranged.
Other projects at the club include Ollie the Octopus, a soft toy made from different materials to help a visually impaired child to understand aspects of the physical world - plants or coins, for example - by matching surfaces with words in braille. Another was a tricycle for a child with cerebral palsy.
Girls attending Young Engineers work towards a range of awards and accreditations, including CREST's bronze, silver, gold and platinum awards, achieved by 121 pupils last year.
Several pupils have attended residential courses, such as three days' problem-solving run by Get Set (Girls into Engineering, Science and Technology) at Imperial College, London, hosted by TV personality Johnny Ball.
Much of the credit for the club's success at Turves Green is due to craft, design and technology teacher Mary Rodgers. Young Engineers, she says, builds on the work taught in curriculum lessons, while developing communication and teamwork skills. "These seeds sown early do open up opportunities that they would never have considered," she says. "What we have found is that a little bit of enthusiasm and success goes a long way."
Mrs Rodgers is quick to acknowledge the help provided by outside organisations, including SATRO (Science and Technology Regional Organisation), which links schools and neighbourhood engineers.
Cadbury - based at nearby Bournville - runs a project with Year Nine to design, make and market a new chocolate bar. The girls are organised into groups (but not with their friends) and each allocated a particular role within the process.
Becky Lindsay, a production engineer at Cadbury and the neighbourhood engineer, provides materials and arranges for Cadbury staff to come into school to talk about different aspects of the project.
Rover provides materials, including a car engine and a robot, and some cash sponsorship. Its neighbourhood engineer also endorses pupils' attendance records at school and talks in assembly about the workplace.
The pupils acknowledge the encouragement they receive. "I don't think I would want to do anything involving engineering if I didn't go to this school, " says Nicola Charles, 15, one of eight girls who recently went on a helicopter ride over a BP oil refinery in Scotland after winning a competition at Birmingham University to build a model oil rig.
"There are opportunities here and when you see your design working and you have put all your effort into it, it is really good."
Most of the girls at Turves Green believe single-sex schooling has fostered their interest in engineering. "When we go to competitions, the majority are boys. Even if there are girls, they are usually just one in a group of six boys, and it is the boys who have done most of the project work," said one.
Mrs Rodgers agrees: "They are more likely to do things which are non-stereotypical if there are no boys around. The girls are very enthusiastic. "
Much of the emphasis on technology and engineering has been developed in the past four years - and is now paying real dividends. In September, Turves Green will acquire technology college status, having raised Pounds 100,000 in sponsorship.
It will also become one of 50 schools in the country to introduce the new General National Vocational Qualification in engineering.
"We already fulfill most of the criteria, so it seems the logical way to go," says headteacher Sara Brehony. "There has been a definite drive to build links with local industry - it is part of the ethos of the school."
Seven years ago, 17 per cent of pupils gained five GCSEs at grades A-C.
Last year, despite a mixed catchment area and competition from two grant-maintained schools, the figure had risen to 39 per cent. "There is quite a lot of deprivation around here," adds Mrs Brehony. "But we are getting an increasing number of professional parents choosing to send their children to the school.
"Across the board, staff are putting in a tremendous amount of hard work and commitment. I think the awards help motivate staff and pupils and give them some recognition for what they are achieving."
* Turves Green is also the winner of this year's TES award for community action. Its entry included the model pelican crossing and a project to accompany underprivileged children on an activity weekend at Symond's Yat on the River Wye. Money for the trip was raised by pupils