On the shop floor

11th November 2007 at 00:00

A Victorian girls'school in East London has won accolades for creating a technology "village" in one of its halls. Sarah Bonnell Girls School is a vast Victorian edifice in the East London Borough of Newham. Unlike many of the borough's buildings, however, it is not gloomy inside. Just the opposite, in fact. There is a light, cheerful feel about it.

The uniform expresses this lightness of touch. All navy blue, it takes a variety of comfortable forms: skirts, tracksuit and sweatshirt and Shalwar Kameez a dress with matching trousers often worn by Asian women. This secondary school, you feel, has learnt to deal effortlessly with the individuality of its 1,100 or so pupils, both in terms of personality and culture (63 languages are represented here) without sacrificing its communality.

Such a school is obviously coping well with the Nineties. But it is still a surprise when, turning a corner in the building, you walk under a huge arch transcribed with the words Technology Village and find yourself in the "High Street".

Built inside one of three halls, the Technology Village comprises a large corridor (the High Street), on either side of which are a number of extraordinarily well-furnished and equipped "studios" dedicated to graphics, textile design, business and information studies, craft design technology, control and electronics and food technology.

Between the studios and the High Street are "shop windows" containing shelves between two sheets of glass, on which work and materials are displayed. The studios themselves are divided by heavy partitions which have windows in them, giving an open-plan feel to the whole floor.

The Village was opened by Prince Charles, who got to know the school through the Princes Trust, and was a crucial step in the school's attempt to bring the different technology disciplines together and provide pupils, aged 11-16 (the school has no sixth form), with a stimulating environment and the skills and tools used in industry. It was designed by a team including teachers, advisers, inspectors and LEA officers and built by a local company.

On a rotational basis, 120 pupils will spend half a day a week here, doing one of the six subjects which come under the Technology banner for 12 weeks. Over a three-year period they will have been to all the areas once.

"Before, we had rooms all over this huge school and it was impossible to deliver holistic technology," says technology coordinator Petch Phillips. When the school won Technology Schools Initiative funding in l992, it was decided to site all the components of the subject on one floor.

Armed with the Pounds 273,000 and kudos from the TSI award, the school then went in search of sponsorship. They received equipment for the food technology department from London Electricity and a gift of Windows NT networking software from Microsoft, to link every PC in the school. They also received other packages including Microsoft Publisher, Works and Office. The use of spreadsheets, databases and word-processor applications skills, like a lot of what pupils learn in the Village, is transferable to other subjects including English, maths and history, thereby magnifying the benefits. The school is now looking for sponsorship for the control electronics area.

The Village is decorated throughout in white with red furnishings. There are Venetian blinds and special non-glare lighting. It is a bright, welcoming environment. "We used to say it was girl-friendly," says Petch Phillips, "but it was pointed out that men wouldn't mind working here as well".

The school, however, does take care to identify the needs of girls in technology, choosing applications and exercises which are oriented towards people and therefore considered more likely to appeal to women. The workshops are not dark and factory-like with heavy machinery. Instead, they contain light, brightly-painted lathes, mills and drills which are just as suitable, the school maintains, for teaching the skills needed.

Girls too often don't have the opportunity to play with construction kits, which are important for creating an understanding of basic technological principles. Instead of just bemoaning the fact, the school has taken the unusual step of using Pounds 3,000 from its own Foundation money, to buy a large selection of different kits such as Lego, Tactic and Fisher Technic. These are introduced in lessons, but pupils can also come and play with them at other times. The school is planning to set up a lunchtime construction kits club.

All the rooms are well equipped. A graphics design company would be happy to have its well-designed tables and chairs and array of computers on a high bench along one side. There are about 30 computers in the whole technology department, mostly 486 PCs and some Apple Macs. Two are multi-media machines.

Apart from the usual range of ovens and dishwashers, the food technology room contains a tandoori and pizza oven plus a commercial stainless steel washing area. The business and information studies area is set up to look like a small office with about 10 computers which are part of the school network.

As the subjects have been brought together in one space, teachers have had to learn to work as a team, sacrificing some of their autonomy but gaining a more dynamic approach to technology, says Petch Phillips.

"We have identified the generic skills, for example research and evaluation, which are developed by everyone at the same time (the main thrust this term is research skills) and the rest is left to the specialisms."

Initially tasks set are quite closed and prescriptive, but gradually the girls become more independent. "We considered the skills needed, and the departments use a series of structured tasks to illustrate and give practice in them. These tasks become more and more open as they draw on knowledge acquired".

A Times Past project for Year 8 which the school developed with Nuffield Technology (Sarah Bonnell is one of the very few school-based Nuffield Regional Centres), for example, includes an exercise on Victorian toys. It was preceded by a look at basic levers and linkages, cams and cranks, basic design and isometric drawing, included a visit to a museum, and culminated in short workshops where pupils designed and then produced their own toys, using one of the mechanisms investigated.

"We start with the familiar and take them through to the unfamiliar," says Petch Phillips. "We want to encourage a certain attitude as much as anything. We want pupils to acquire an `I-can-do-it' approach to new challenges".

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