Subject which hits the nail on the head

17th April 2009 at 01:00
A West Lothian secondary is debunking the myth that craft, design and technology is just about banging bits of wood together

Techie n. colloq. school department where pupils of lesser ability go to make spatulas and bird boxes.

or so the myth goes. But teachers at a West Lothian secondary are proving that craft, design and technology can be at the vanguard of curricular innovation, by taking their expertise into primary schools.

David McMillan is an evangelist for his subject, whose enthusiasm has helped propel many pupils into design degrees over the 25 years and ensures an unusually large batch of Higher and Advanced Higher candidates at Livingston's James Young High each year.

Since returning from his holidays last summer, Mr McMillan, curriculum principal teacher for business and arts as well as CDT, and colleagues have been spreading the word at the town's Bankton Primary.

Each week, P4, 5 and 7 have had an hour with their visitors from the big school, resulting in ambitious cross-curricular projects.

James Young probationer Joanne Gribben has worked with P4, and admits she had "no idea" what skills and knowledge they would have. "Everything I'd planned seemed to take longer than I thought it would," she says.

Joanne started with the design of name badges. Some pupils protest they can't draw, says Mr McMillan, but everyone can write and that's a form of drawing. "Psychomotor skills" overcome this mental block: they are encouraged to think how different types of lines would sound and what they should be called.

There's the Thomas the Tank Engine - scrawling back and forward with the chugging rhythm of a train - or the "constipated" line, the "ngghhh" of gripping a pencil tightly and dragging it across the page.

Their confidence boosted, the pupils move on to making MDF desk tidies. This seems more like the stereotypical techie, but the tidies are joined together to form a sprawling, random shape. Next, they think about the look of urban skylines and turn their interlocking tidies into a cityscape. They learn new vocabulary and about symmetry; they think about geography and architecture. They are excited, Mr McMillan says, at being able to take a "bit of a city" home with them.

Nick O'Neill, a teacher at James Young, has been working with P5, building - literally - on their links with a charity in Uganda by making a product for the country's tourist board. First, the pupils think about what products sell well in Scottish tourist shops, and the differences between Uganda and Livingston.

Product design involves sketching, presentations and hard business decisions before a photograph frame with an animal motif is settled on. All the while, other issues are rising to the surface, such as sustainability: pupils learn, for example, that a pine tree can be quickly replaced by more quick-growing pines.

Bankton Primary does not have the equipment which secondary schools can call on, but Mr McMillan says this can be an advantage. Designs have to be passed on to "sub-contractors" at the high school, teachers who ensure that products are made exactly as specified.

Some come back substandard and unsaleable because designs have been inaccurate, teaching valuable lessons about the need for pinpoint measurements and the impact of shoddy design on sales.

While the primary pupils benefit from tasks which weave in a multitude of subjects, disciplines and skills, James Young's depute headteacher, Evelyn Jessiman, says there are huge gains for her own school. Children will arrive in S1 "used to this kind of approach" and teachers will have a better idea of primary pupils' abilities, easing the transition to secondary school.

Budget pressures notwithstanding, Mr McMillan hopes to involve the school's other three cluster primaries next year. Word is spreading that some primary teachers' perception of CDT as a "bird box-making department" might be off the mark - that it could be the perfect vehicle for A Curriculum for Excellence.

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