Doing time;Subject of the week;Technology

24th April 1998 at 01:00
One teacher has proved that making a product, rather than just designing it, is a sure-fire way to motivate design and technology students. Clare Jenkins reports

Time was of the essence for John Rollings when he became head of technology at Foxhills School in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, just over a year ago.

His students were demotivated and "seriously" under-performing, their work was well below the national average in design and technology, their workshop environment was "uninspiring", and an OFSTED inspection was looming.

His solution was to make them, literally, do time. By getting the Year 11s to design and make clocks for their resistant materials project, he has turned even absentee pupils into ardent clock-watchers, whose work has been praised for its excellent workmanship and design.

Among the stylish designs are a fish tank clock, complete with live fish; a triangular snooker table clock, with a green baize centre and snooker "balls" for the four main time points; and a four-feet tall modern grand-father clock.

Thanks to their efforts - and to an improved working environment - the status of design and technology has been raised among staff and students alike.

The subject generally has had something of an image problem, Mr Rollings says. "It's been seen as a practical subject for lower-ability children, so of little value." As a former product designer himself, he has seen that problem from both sides - industry and education.

Before moving to Foxhills, with its deprived catchment areas, he had worked in two Kent schools after qualifying as a teacher in 1991.

"In every school," he says, "I've found students switched off the subject. The workshops have been dingy, dirty little places. All the books have been old. Every place has been full of tradition - and has needed revolution."

Fortunately, in each school he has had the backing of the headteachers and governors. At Foxhills, the old woodwork benches and metalwork tables were replaced by new furniture and resources, while the local education authority paid pound;6,000 for a workshop dust extraction unit.

Mr Rollings put up large cartoon figures and posters, as well as boards to display students' work. Previously, there was little worth putting on show.

Part of the problem, he believes, is a lack of investment in teachers and resources. Another hindrance is the traditional, craft-based background of many design and technology teachers, who have not always been able to keep pace with developments in design.

"Damp;T is so wide now and takes in so many factors, it's the expertise of the teacher that counts today," Mr Rollings says. "Because I've worked in industry here and abroad, that's given me confidence to know how far you can push an idea. The Dearing report (into higher education) emphasised the importance of making a product, not just designing one."

A designer himself, he knows the importance of a professional approach to market research, design and manufacture. "Students must give quality assurance in what they are making, and the Damp;T teacher should be the quality controller. I insist on high standards throughout."

The first stage of the GCSE project looked at design, location and materials, using mat-erials that Mr Rollings had persuaded local wood and plastics firms to donate. Research and analysis included devising a questionnaire and contacting companies for advice. A logbook helped students focus on the task: "Because it looks like an official document, it's increased the quality and standard of their work."

Included in the logbook are working drawings, actual cogs, and the results of structure and mechanism testing. Finally, students wrote up a product evaluation and completed a fact file covering materials and components, systems and control, products and applications, quality, health and safety issues. The project also covered information and communications technology.

The results are impressive. One girl designed a wavy clock that ended up in the head's office. One boy designed a clock for a primary school. Another, notoriously absent, was to be found spending long hours in the workshops completing his design, which went on display alongside that of a usually disruptive student.

This was not just for their own self-esteem, but also to generate excitement among the lower school about what could be achieved.

"It's seen as a switched-on subject now, and one where even special needs pupils can create something," Mr Rollings says. "The main factor is, they've all produced a clock. And they're not just functional - there's a lot of decoration and ornament as well.

"A lot of the children would say they've never finished anything before. One boy, for instance, is always in trouble at school, and probably the only thing he'll ever achieve here is his clock. And the boy who made the grandfather clock now wants to be a Damp;T teacher himself."

Design and technology is also valuable, he believes, for its transferable skills such as planning, research and communication. "The children have a lot of life skills now through making these. They're more culturally aware. And the subject is a very powerful tool for industry - students are switched on to the fact that they need Damp;T to get a job," which Mr Rollings says holds true even in Crosby, this 900-pupil school's most deprived catchment area, which has received funding through the Government and European Union's Single Regeneration Scheme.

"I love this subject," Mr Rollings says, "and I love to see children getting positive vibes out of it. There's a certain magic about it, and it's come out in this project. All the clocks are different, so it's like there's part of them in each one."

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