Take one enterprising college, add a shortage of food technology teachers, stir in political pressure on childhood obesity and the result is a virtual success story. Nick Morrison reports
While politicians rallied against childhood obesity and stressed the impor- tance of learning all about nutrition, Craig Pamphilon struggled to recruit food technology teachers. The head of Uckfield Community Technology College in East Sussex faced giving the subject less space on the timetable.
"There were no food technology teachers in training within a 50-mile radius," he says. "It became a problem and there was a possibility we would have been unable to offer the subject at key stage 3."
The school, with 1,600 11 to 18-year-olds, went so far as to recruit a teacher from the United States, but this proved only a temporary solution and, after a year, Craig was back to square one. His solution? If there weren't enough food technology teachers being trained locally, he would train his own.
So with funding from the Training and Development Agency for Schools, and in collaboration with the University of the West of England at Bristol, Uckfield set up its own course for food technology teachers. The students take the standard PGCE course, the only difference is their teaching is delivered via video link, to a specially converted room in the school. They also have access to Uckfield's classroom equipment and undertake placements in other schools.
"It was a Catch 22," says Craig. "We wanted to place people, but because some schools had difficulty recruiting they decided not to offer food technology, so didn't have the resources and couldn't provide placements."
Despite this, the first eight students to enrol have now completed two terms. Rory O'Connor, an advanced skills teacher for technology at Uckfield and scheme manager, says: "We have the same programme that they have at university except they come here.
"There was no provision around here to train as food technology teachers, so students who were tied by family or other commitments may not have been able to do it. This gives them the opportunity."
Sam Harman, 24, is one of the first cohort. After completing his degree at the University of Surrey, he would have had to move to take his PGCE, with all the extra expense that entails. A place on the course means he is just half an hour from his home, in Eastbourne, and gives him the advantage of being based in school. "Being immersed in the school makes a difference,"
he says. "I enjoyed my time at university but there is nothing like working in the environment you want to be in.
"It is a different feeling to being at university, and it helps you realise exactly what you're going into. There are always examples near to hand, which sometimes you don't get at university."
Sam's two placements have been at Uckfield and at Eastbourne Technology College, and he says the experience has been wholly positive. "I'm enjoying it, especially the teaching practice, and building a relationship with staff at Uckfield, who have been great."
He hopes he could be a role model for boys wanting to go into food technology. "The subject has moved away from home economics, but people still have that stereotypical view of their teacher being a woman with experience in the kitchen.
"That didn't worry me, although it was in the back of my mind, but once I was in the department it wasn't an issue, and hopefully it will inspire the boys," he says.
Uckfield has trained mentors at its partner schools and Rory admits the scheme has taken a fair bit of work to set up, as well as requiring half-term commitments from the teachers involved - they stick to university term dates. There have also been teething problems, with technical difficulties disrupting some online lectures. But it has gone down well with local schools.
"We have had schools asking to be involved because they need teachers, and we have had a tremendous amount of support from our partner schools," Rory says. The school is now recruiting for a second group to start in September, and although Uckfield doesn't have a vacancy for a food technology teacher at the moment, it still benefits from the programme.
"The academic input from the university is rubbing off on our staff, and we've also been able to equip a room we can use for training," Rory says.
"It's been helpful for us to widen our experience."