Designed for life

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady looks at how a mix of process and experimentation is producing diverse and imaginative results at Bromley High School

For her project on lighting, Year 12 student Anna Evans has built a brick wall with integral frosted lighting units shaped like the bricks. She mixed the mortar, laid the bricks and fitted the electrics herself. The result would provide the "wow" factor in an up-market apartment, look good in an art gallery, or, with further development, glowingly light up and protect a garden.

"I like the big stuff," she says. "I wanted to experiment with materials, particularly bricks and mortar, and clear acrylic sprayed with etching spray. The brick wall idea came out of seeing some of the architecture of Josep Lluis Sert in Barcelona. I then researched different mortar mixes, brick types and bond configurations to find the most suitable."

Anna's work at Bromley High, an independent girls' school, reflects the ethos of a design technology department in which, after an initial thorough grounding in processes, techniques and materials, students are encouraged to design and build with few constraints. The results are a spectacular array of products in a range of materials, and beautifully designed portfolios, each illustrating the girls' different approaches to the developmental work.

Five years ago, the school's coordinator of art and design and design technology, Tim Masters, changed from graphic products at GCSE to product design to enable the maximum choice of materials; he also introduced a full A level. There followed a three-part increase in the numbers of students taking the subject, and some great results. Last year, 100 per cent gained B or higher at GCSE, with 81 per cent gaining A or A*; at A2, 100 per cent gained grade C or higher, 50 per cent of students achieving grade A. This year, four out of eight A2 students are planning to go to university to study subjects related to design and technology: two to do architecture; one engineering and another industrial design and technology.

Older students focus on experimentation, but in the early years it's process that's emphasised. "Years 7-9 are less important in terms of results and more important in terms of learning the design process - if you understand that you can design anything," says Tim. It's in Year 10 that the department encourages students to experiment with materials, techniques and machinery such as drills, sanders, brazing hearths, line benders, vacuum formers and even a kettle to "steam form" plywood.

Though Tim argues that there is probably less machinery and CADCAM than in other schools: "We push them to experiment with what there is. It's a non-spoonfed approach which ensures that students fail before they succeed." The girls are each given the same brief, but the results are very diverse. Asked to develop a storage system they have come up with a stationery unit; a jewellery container and a personal organiser.

At Year 11, the brief becomes broader. "They can design pretty much what they like, with a little anchoring. For example, they might be asked to produce something that can be sold in an art gallery, museum or exhibition centre which reflects work by an architect, artist, sculptor or engineer,"

says Tim.

Students pursue their own interests, whether that be in practical work or in drawing and designing. These differences are reflected in their portfolios: some are very arty and free-flowing, while others use a tighter presentation.

In Year 12, students are given two briefs. One very constrictive: to make a sundial using MDF; and the other very open: to design and manufacture some form of lighting. Products have ranged from imaginative candle-holders to Anna's wall. Materials include concrete, MDF, aluminium sheet and tube, sheet steel and copper rod.

In Year 13, the only limits are those dictated by the unavoidable problem of storage. "Students are actively encouraged to design with absolutely no constraints and then to 'bring their design in' to some sort of realistic manufacturing proposal," says Tim. The results again are diverse and imaginative.

This year, the storage theme has given rise to products that include a stand for small umbrellas - which, when not in use, is a sculpture, influenced by, among others, Barbara Hepworth - and lockers with retracting garage-like doors, which came out of an in-depth study of the disadvantages of the school's locker system.

Francesca Payne left Bromley High last year and is now doing a foundation year at art school before a course in graphics communication. "I wasn't made to feel that because I wasn't brilliant at the practical stuff, it mattered. It helped me build on my strengths, which were visual rather than practical", she says of her DT courses at Bromley High.

Nisha Vekaria and Vicky Harrison, both studying architecture at university, found that many of their fellow undergraduates were frightened of machinery, tending to stick to card rather than risk failure. "We overcame those sorts of fears early on: we're not frightened of machinery," says Nisha.

Tim admits that the school is lucky in terms of resources. They have been able to buy the materials girls wanted, for example acrylic and metals. But he points out that Anna Evans provided her own bricks and mortar and another pupil provided hardwood and glass to make an exquisite little table.

"It's not about money, but about the approach," he argues.

Teaching ideas

* Encourage students to try even if they subsequently fail: a failed experiment can be more important than a successful but trivial design.

* Don't be afraid to say you don't know, for example, if a student asks "Will this work?", you can say: "I don't know, give it a try."

* Encourage students to view everything as a potential resource or reference, for example buildings, materials and objects such as shells and fruits.

* Use good exemplar work from students in previous years.

* Encourage students to create scratchy concept drawings on the back of, say, napkins or cheap greaseproof paper.

* Buy lots of fineliner pens to encourage students to draw in the right way.

* Examining board moderation of other schools is the best form of training that you can do.

* Teamwork is important: at the beginning of a project encourage students to work in a group, have lots of discussions, and get students to critique each other's designs.

One way is to do "speed designs" - they draw what comes immediately into their heads, pass it around and talk about it.

A group of Year 13 girls, now at the end of their A2 course, chose the encouragement of teamwork as a great strength of the school's approach.

They had enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other.

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