A rusty old engine stands alongside a coal wagon in the grounds of Ebbw Vale senior comprehensive school, relics of the heavy industries which once dominated the valleys of Gwent, writes Anat Arkin.
Pupils who have seen their parents' jobs in these industries disappear might be expected to want nothing to do with manufacturing. Yet the numbers taking General National Vocational Qualifications in manufacturing compare favourably with those following other work-oriented courses. This may have something to do with the background of staff who teach manufacturing. Five of the six members of the school's technology department are former engineers who understand better than most that manufacturing now is as much about working with computers as spanners.
But the buoyant take-up of the intermediate-level qualification (equivalent to GCSE) also reflects the school's success in persuading students that manufacturing is a good foundation for advanced studies in other technical areas. It is a foundation which Byron Healey, the school's head of technology, says was missing from his own training as an engineer. "I did my job out of context. If I'd understood about production planning or quality control I would have been a better instruments engineer."
While GNVQs in manufacturing introduce students to the broad sweep of industrial processes, there will also be, according to Mr Healey, more practical reasons for sticking to this area when GNVQs in engineering come on stream in September. Since many schools threw out a lot of their engineering equipment in the switch from single craft subjects to craft, design and technology, they are now better equipped to offer manufacturing.
Manufacturing also follows on logically from key stage 4 technology. "It's the same 'design and make' process, but it needs to be given an industrial focus," says Mr Healey, who is critical of the the National Council for Vocational Qualifications for fragmenting what had been a holistic process.
Instead of teaching manufacturing as a series of stand-alone units, his school uses the thematic, integrated approach which CDT teachers, and former CDT students, are already accustomed to.
Course materials produced by a group of teachers under the aegis of the Gwent joint school-college project support this integrated approach with activities that take students through from initial brief to final product. These activities satisfy basic course requirements for designing, planning and making products in two contrasting sectors (construction materials and electronics). But they do not tie in so easily with external tests based on individual units. Ebbw Vale has overcome this problem by making sure students cover the content of individual units by the time of the external tests.
Byron Healey believes a shortage of course materials of the kind his group has produced is holding many schools and colleges back from offering courses in manufacturing. But packs of assignments are not enough, he argues. Just as important are materials to inform teachers about manufacturing.