Sewn up

25th June 2004 at 01:00
By making their own fleece hats and graffiti bags, boys at a Rochdale school are setting trends and turning heads, says David Bocking

Wild and mad. That's how the technology department of Heywood Community High School used to be, says department head Peter Cloran, with perhaps only a touch of exaggeration. Nearby, the Rochdale school's textiles room is full of Year 9 pupils carefully tacking and sewing. Girls and shaven-headed boys are carefully ironing and painstakingly guiding hems through sewing machines. "I like making stuff," says Luke Tittensor. "I'm quite good at woodwork, but I find textiles more challenging." The 14-year-old is planning to take GCSE textiles next year. "I think boys are getting more into textiles, because we're doing more masculine things as well as feminine. And we like making stuff we can use," he says proudly, holding up his half-finished "graffiti" shoulder bag. "I'll probably use this for my football boots."

Newly qualified teacher Stella O'Toole arrived at Heywood last September, three weeks before the technology block was set on fire in an arson attack.

The textile room was smoke-blackened and much of the material stock had to be thrown out. None the less, Stella went ahead with the school's entry to a local design competition and won a printerscanner for the department.

Her efforts to encourage pupils to take up textile technology have now won her an outstanding newcomer citation in the Design and Technology Association annual teacher awards (see story right).

The recruitment of two NQTs last autumn to the Heywood technology department helped to improve the subject's standing in the school, says Peter Cloran. "There'd been people off sick, and a lot of supply teachers coming in, and kids grumbled about technology. Now you get boys saying 'This is the best subject, innit?' It's becoming important to them because they like the projects. They walk round the school with their hats on and their bags." Stella O'Toole freely admits that getting teenage boys interested in textile technology is something of a crusade. One of her placements while training was in Manchester's Moss Side district.

"They were tough streetwise boys there, and I thought if I'm going to try my project ideas anywhere, this is where I'm going to find out if they're right. The boys loved it. They responded really well, and I thought: this is going to work." Stella O'Toole's approach is simple: textile projects must be relevant and interesting to students. If not, they'll never take to the subject. Her boy-friendly projects are fleece hats and shoulder bags based on graffiti designs.

Students seek out pictures or ideas on the internet, or scan their own drawings, which are then printed out on silicon sheets on a printer ready to be ironed onto fabric. The sheets cost around pound;40 for 100. "With the hats we're doing basic pattern-cutting and construction techniques," says Stella O'Toole. "Printing on silicon sheets is a cheap way to use CADCAM with textiles. The hats are a godsend. They're wearing that kind of thing anyway, and now we're seeing them wearing the hats they make around school. They know they're making something of real quality."

"Kids need to want to do what you're asking them to do," says Peter Cloran.

"They'll produce stuff that's really good, and if you push them to do it right, they'll do it because they want to get it right themselves. And woven into the project are a whole load of learning outcomes and they'll do it without fighting because you've got that crock of gold of a hat at the end."

Stella O'Toole was warned about the likely reaction of boys to textiles during her training, and she's encountered the same "It's for girls" stereotyping from parents too:"At parents evening, I get parents of boys saying 'What's the point of doing that?' and I say if he's good at it, I can't see a problem. It's a skill a man or a woman can use. There are very good jobs for men and women in the textile industry."

Several Heywood boys are aiming to take GCSE textiles next year, and Stella O'Toole is planning a tandem curriculum for students. "We're aiming to do fashion and sports," she says. "I couldn't ask a boy to do handbags and skirts, so the sports curriculum will focus on smart fabrics, like swimming suits made out of material that's like shark skin. I'll be trying to get sponsorship from sports companies."

"People like Nike and Adidas are very keen to help schools. If you approach them and you're proactive they respond to that." Which is an approach she used after the fire last year. The local authority recycling department put her on to companies prepared to pass on unwanted products.

The nearby upholstery company, Thomas French, gave the department all the textiles needed for the graffiti bags, and when one of her students revealed that his father worked for a cord-making company, she was on the phone the same day. "Local companies have saved us hundreds and hundreds of pounds," she says.

Other local authorities operate schemes similar to the Rochdale recycling bank, Stella O'Toole adds. Just get in touch with your local recycling officer. She's enjoyed every second of her first year of teaching, and she believes the new attitude to textiles at Heywood will continue: "They're interested in fashion, and if you look at the way they present themselves you'll see they are interested in textiles by definition."

Year 9 continue their sewing and tacking, as their graffiti bags gradually take shape. "We enjoy it. We like working with materials," says 13-year-old Carl Crook. "We make it and finish it, and it's good."

"I don't think it's a girl's subject," says Gary Barnes, 14, looking proudly at his new bag. And just in case anyone has any doubts, he adds: "It's for my boxing kit."

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