Design technology is at the forefront of a dramatic turnaround at a failing inner-city school. Simon Midgley reports
This summer 20 pupils at a disadvantaged inner-city comprehensive achieved high grade GCSE passes in design technology despite sitting the exam a year early.
In its way, this achievement by 15-year-olds from the Geoffrey Chaucer School in south-east London, is as laudable, if not more so, as the sparkling results of some of its privileged, independent neighbours such as Dulwich College.
The teenagers - all but one of whom speak English as a second language - are studying at a county school that, for the past two-and-a-half years, has suffered the stigma of special measures.
In 1995 an HMI team judged Geoffrey Chaucer, an 11-16 mixed comprehensive, as failing to meet the educational needs of its children.
The 20 teenagers, from a Cook's tour of ethnic backgrounds including Chinese, Vietnamese, Colombian, Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean and European, took the design technology GCSE in June this year. They achieved two starred As, four As, eight Bs and six Cs.
The children were assessed on their coursework, by written exam and on the quality of a product design proposal and the completed artefact. They, variously, designed and constructed a musical instrument for a pre-school child, a modular storage system for a teenager's bedroom and a seat storage system for a playgroup.
After preparing a design brief, they researched their product at museums, art galleries and libraries, drew up a specification, proposed design ideas, chose the best option, worked out construction details and ultimately made it.
The resulting design papers were professionally drawn, vividly coloured and minutely annotated with explanations of the ideas behind the construction.
Long Ting Wu, 15, whose parents are from Hong Kong, designed a modular storage system for a child's bedroom. She wanted to do her exam a year early, so she had more time for other exams in year 11. She gained an A. She has also achieved a starred A in Cantonese (in Year 9) and a starred A in maths.
Shayfur Rahman, aged 15, achieved a starred A for his storage seat for a playgroup. He also gained a starred A in Bengali, a B in maths and Cs in chemistry and biology. Joshin Uddin, aged 15, also from a Bengali background, achieved a B for the musical instrument he constructed and an A in maths.
These are considerable achievements for the 700-pupil school. Less than three years ago Geoffrey Chaucer was the bottom achieving school in its borough, Southwark, which in turn was the lowest achieving London borough.
Twenty-four first languages are spoken in the school and English is a second language for 66 per cent. In the 1994 academic year 166 pupils were excluded for misbehaviour, some of them for carrying weapons. But shortly after the school was deemed to be failing a new headteacher, Sandra Yardon-Pinder, and a deputy head, Steve Morrison, were appointed.
Two-and-a-half years and much hard work later they, with other senior members of staff, have turned the school around. This year has seen a dramatic improvement in pupil behaviour, with no exclusions. The startling success of the 20 design technology students is evidence of the school's revived fortunes.
At the core of the school's action plan was a recognition that if children are ready to take an exam at an earlier age than usual they should be encouraged to do so. Thus if children in Years 7, 8, 9 or 10 are considered able, they take one or more GCSEs early.
In the past children have taken GCSEs early in Bengali, Cantonese, maths and the sciences. Last year the design technology department entered six pupils early in a pilot scheme. All passed at grades A to C. This encouraged the department to expand the early entry group to include the 20 Year 10 pupils .
Martin Willbourn, senior teacher in design technology, says: "We chose those who showed keenness, natural ability, good attendance and the willingness to attend extra-curricular studies."
Continuous assessment at key stage 3 enables the four design technology teachers to build profiles of pupil abilities to single out those suitable for early entry.
"It allows them to study for further examinations later," Mr Willbourn says. "It also shows them and others that success can come early."
Those who opt for early entry are guided by teacher mentors and attend Saturday morning school, other extra lessons and an Easter revision week.
Mr Willbourn adds that giving children effective schemes of work at key stage 3 - experience of materials, food, textiles, wood, metal and plastic - is essential to prepare them for possible early GCSE entry.
The school has two well-equipped resistant materials (wood, metal, plastics) workshops, a textiles studio and a new food technology room. The department plans the teaching of structures, product design, pneumatics and 3-D work with textiles carefully.
Reading and writing skills are integrated into the course to improve students' performance in written papers. Discipline is formal and all pupils are given regular homework. Learning and problem-solving is carried out as a team activity.
The best work is colour photocopied and collected in a portfolio to show children the differences between, for example, C grade and D grade work. This work is also displayed throughout the school to show younger students the standards they are expected to achieve.
This example of good practice has been disseminated to other schools across the borough.
Paul Morgan, Southwark Council's inspector for technology, says: "Clearly the staff at Geoffrey Chaucer are able and committed. They are well qualified to teach, work together as a team and are highly professional with high expectations for pupil achievement.
"The big problem is the shortage of qualified design and technology teachers. The school is finding it difficult to recruit when teachers move on for promotion."
Currently 30 pupils in Year 10 are being prepared to sit their design technology GCSE a year early.
This year Geoffrey Chaucer School outperforme most of the other county schools in Southwark with its GCSE results, with 22 per cent of its children achieving five or more passes at A to C. Behaviour has improved and school attendance now runs at 92 per cent.
Despite these dramatic indications of rude health, Geoffrey Chaucer is still on special measures. Staff are hoping an HMI inspection on November 10 and 11 will finally end this ignominy.