Crispin Andrews sees students take part in industry-backed competitions as an introduction to work
Striding down the cat-walk, 17-year-old Christina finally realises how worthwhile all her hard work has been. Clad in her very own blue-denim outfit, the aspiring young model and designer takes the plaudits from an admiring Pavilion Theatre audience. Initial uncertainty gives way to assurance, and as she twirls around to retrace her steps, all those late nights putting the finishing touches to her fashion and textiles coursework become distant memories. More than 1,000 people seem pretty impressed - and, for this AS-level student, success seems to be just around the corner.
On the water front, another student from Budmouth School is making a significant decision. Although he has known for some time that he would like to follow a career in engineering, James has never been quite sure how to go about getting started. Now, after giving a presentation about a solar-powered boat he made with a group of friends as part of his GCSE engineering course, he realises he is totally comfortable working alongside adults. Forget university, James is going to apply for an apprenticeship with an engineering company right away.
James and Christina are just two of many students at the technology college in Weymouth for whom school life is fast becoming a series of challenges.
Working alongside representatives from industry, the college organises competitive events to inspire learners.
Head of design technology Steve Allgood explains how his own experience of learning DT in a stale environment of textbooks and photos made him realise that to engage today's students a more relevant approach is needed.
"Competition and challenge is an intrinsic aspect of the world of business and industry," says Steve. "We want to ensure that our students know what the real world is all about, so we arrange these challenges and involve experts from industry as often as possible."
The annual fashion challenge at which Christina and other young hopefuls strut their stuff is sponsored by fashion retailer New Look. As well as lending a hand in designing brochures and invitations, New Look is displaying its clothing during the interval. The company also provides prizes; some years ago winners had their collections made and sold in several New Look shops. According to director of human resources Robin Lewis, New Look is keen to help schools develop a pool of talent from which future stars of the fashion industry will emerge, while for Liz Queeding, the Budmouth teacher who runs the event, the involvement of a major high-street name provides an incentive for pupils.
"Imagine parading your GCSE or A-level coursework in front of over a thousand people with New Look buyers in the audience," she enthuses. "Don't just come up with a set of great design ideas, this is saying to our students carry your ideas through to completion and right on to the cat-walk!"
Similar incentives were there for James and the other students involved in the marine challenge: design and make the fastest boat and you could get to represent the school in the regional race day. Win that and, as Budmouth students found out in 2004, bombing around Poole bay in a Sunseeker craft at 45 knots or more can be absolutely exhilarating. So too can a trip in France2, one of the yachts that competed in the America's Cup, the most prestigious sailing tournament of all.
Starting as a national schools' competition, the marine challenge is now an integral part of Budmouth's vocational GCSE engineering course. Using computer-aided design software, students work for the best part of a term analysing boat design, and make their own solar-powered or radio-controlled racing boats.
While the British Marine Federation, which organises the marine challenge and wants to raise awareness of career opportunities in the industry, encourages schools to offer marine engineering and make links with businesses, the Construction Industry Training Board is keen to develop the key problem-solving and collaborative skills employers look for in school leavers. Through its construction challenge, eight teams of six students apply maths and physics concepts to support the skills they need - such as woodwork, plumbing, bricklaying - to build a mini-house.
As business and industry liaison manager at Budmouth School, Jane Fooks has overseen the development of these and other "challenge-style" projects.
Whether painting murals in a nearby army barracks' dining room, making table lamps for a gift shop or designing Olympics postcards (with one of the 2012 venues, the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, on their doorstep) it is the processes students go through while involved in these projects that are most beneficial for their futures.
Jane says: "In order to be ready for the world of work, students need to learn how to apply their knowledge in work-related environments. Working with experts from industry enables students and also teachers to learn how to focus their actions and decision-making practically towards a specific challenge or particular set of circumstances."
Unlike Christina, who to her delight is victorious at the fashion show, James and his group don't get through to their regional finals. However, in reality, both students are winners, successful in overcoming their own personal challenges. With his sponsorship with an engineering company in the bag, the previously indecisive James secures his short-term future and takes the first step towards a career in engineering. And Christina not only has pound;75 worth of New Look vouchers to spend, but also the small matter of an A grade at AS-level behind her. Working hard in her final year at school, the equally indecisive perfectionist who never seemed to get round to making the most of her fantastic ideas, now knows all about taking things through to a successful conclusion.