This September, 40 pupils in Year 10 at Bilton High School in Warwickshire embarked on the new part one GNVQ engineering course. It is being piloted nationally as part of a gradual programme to introduce the GNVQ option into the examination regime for under-16s.
So far, the pupils are filled with enthusiasm. Fourteen-year-old Stuart Friswell, for example, has already been absorbed by his summer holiday project. "I did a study of watches - how they work, their history and so on," he says. "I visited a jewellers in Rugby, and put together a folder."
Hannah Challis, also 14, joined the course because it seemed like a challenge. She says: "There aren't many women in engineering and I wanted to try it." But Hannah says the course is not just for people who want an engineering career. "It's a good basis for other things - it helps your organisational abilities and the key skills part of the course (communication, application of number, information technology) is relevant to other subjects."
Underpinning the optimism of the students is the enthusiasm of head of department Ray Walsh. "We went to town looking at the quality and credibility of this subject and we believe this is the way forward. The course is progressive and relevant, and meets the needs of the most able of youngsters."
Bilton High is one of the 30 schools throughout the UK piloting this course, which aims, in the words of the specification (the syllabus) "to provide students at key stage 4 with opportunities to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding that underpin the creation of engineered products, engineering systems and engineering services". Other schools can bid to take part in a second pilot programme next year - invitations to apply were sent out this summer.
Industrialists lobbied the Department for Education and Employment hard for a GNVQ part one in engineering, and although it is deemed to cover the design and technology requirements of the national curriculum at key stage 4, it leans strongly towards real applications in the working world. The specification says: "Schoolscolleges are strongly advised to make partnership arrangements with local industry."
John Berkeley, education and careers manager of the Rover Group, whence there is solid support for GNVQ, goes further, claiming: "It would be well nigh impossible for a school to develop GNVQ engineering, at any level, without an active partnership with employers and further education."
Rover's commitment to this course is demonstrated by its joint partnership with nine schools in the Midlands (of which Bilton High is one) via the Rover Partnership Centres at the company's four main sites - Longbridge, Solihull, Gaydon and Cowley. Details of the partnership will be worked out as time goes on, but plans and early activities involve fax links with engineers, site visits, accredited work experience and joint projects with apprentices.
In July, Rover provided a starting boost, first by running a working party of teachers and its own people, and then by inviting all 250 pupils from the nine schools to spend the day on a range of activities at the company's Gaydon Heritage Centre. The pupils were then sent away to do a holiday project - a full investigation of, and report on, a chosen mechanical or electrical product. The results were impressive - including portfolios, displays and oral presentations.
For the schools, this is no easy option. The Rover partnership is excellent, but not only will most schools have to make their own links, the "Rover schools" will also to be looking for other partners - Bilton High is seeking to develop an existing link with power generator manufacturer GEC Alsthom, and another with a Rugby-based information technology company. "It can't be an automotive engineering course," says Mr Berkeley.
Forming these links and making them work can be a frustrating business. Sue Hawthorne, policy development officer for the 14-19 sector in Warwickshire, warns: "Negotiating a partnership is difficult and time-consuming - and may come to nothing in the end."
There are also considerable organisational and resourcing de-mands on the school. Timetabling, for example, may be an issue because the need to have students out of school means the subject's time allocation (20 per cent of the timetable is recommended) will need to be organised in lengthy blocks. And then there are demands on staff - meetings and time out to visit industrial partners. An important factor, Ms Hawthorne says, is the commitment and status of the school's GNVQ co-ordinator.
Crawford Payne, Bilton High's GNVQ co-ordinator, is very aware of this, and throws his support behind the new course. With colleagues, he worked hard at keeping staff informed during the planning stage. "We talked to the whole staff and to the whole school. It has to be taken on board by everyone."
If the Bilton High students are typical, there are rewards to be reaped in terms of motivation. Eighty students wanted to take the course, but only 40 could be accommodated. All had looked forward to something different and exciting, and so far the early stages have come well up to expectations.
The wider agenda has to do with promoting a better understanding of engineering among the wide population. "This is not just for those going into engineering," says John Berkeley.