One of the original CTCs took five years to find the right director of technology. Gerald Haigh explains why its headteacher believes it was worth the wait
Thomas Telford School - one of the 15 city technology colleges planned as the previous government's original "beacons of excellence" - opened in September 1991. But it didn't appoint a director of technology until September 1996.
"We never compromise on our appointments, and we interviewed on four or five occasions," explains deputy head Vic Maher, who looked after the department himself until Mark Hudson was found. "We had a young keen staff, but we needed someone to head it up."
Mr Maher - who still has overall responsibility for technology under a management structure that gives each deputy head charge of a group of subjects - says the long search for the right person has paid off. "There's been an incredible improvement in the quality of outcomes," he says.
Last year - the first year of GCSE for pupils who had been all the way through the school - 92 per cent of students achieved grades A* to C in this subject, a record which, according to the report of an inspection carried out earlier this year, indicates "considerable progress through key stages 3 and 4".
But then, some will say, this is a CTC - equipped, surely, with all kinds of kit beyond the wildest dreams of your average teacher. In fact, this is only partly true. The whole school's commitment to information technology means every teaching department makes full use of computers - and in the technology area there is more computer-aided design and manufacturing equipment than you might find in your average school.
In other ways, though, Mark Hudson, who came from Bishop Fox's school in Somerset, where he was already running a successful design technology department, believes the story is different. "In terms of practical tools we are perhaps slightly worse off than some schools I have taught in. Because we haven't been open long, for example, we didn't inherit a lot of craft-based heavy equipment from an earlier era, as many departments in other places did."
The real difference, he says, lies in Thomas Telford's placing of technology right at the centre of teaching, rather than forcing the subject to fight for its place in a traditional curriculum. "The school philosophy is oriented around the technology. When I came here, I believed I could develop the subject in a supportive environment. It's a high-profile job, in the school and nationally, and I was pleased to be appointed."
Outwardly, Thomas Telford bears little resemblance to most secondary schools. The building would pass for the headquarters of any of the other Nineties-style businesses that have come to roost in Telford - deep pitched roofs, secure entrances, car parks, trimmed grass. Inside are carpets, high-quality furnishings and a uniformed reception staff all continuing the illusion that this is the polar opposite of Bash Street Secondary.
And yet the more you are there, the more you realise that under the skin, despite the very obvious part information technology plays in school life, this place has no secret formulae for success.
The emphasis is on the principles that drive any good school - effective leadership, careful appointments, meticulous planning, detailed monitoring of pupils' progress. The head's personal knowledge of the performance of individual pupils, for example, is impressive.
For Mark Hudson, planning is the real key. At the heart of the subject is the three-hour session. Pupils in Years 7 and 8 have two three-hour lessons a week. In Year 9 there is one three-hour session. In Years 10 and 11 pupils have one three-hour lesson and a 100-minute lesson in "session three" which runs from 4 to 5.40pm. An A-level student will have two three-hour lessons plus another three-hour independent learning session.
Such long lessons, Mark Hudson says, demand careful preparation if there is to be purposeful activity all the way through. Planning of resources, for example, has to take place in such a way that, as far as possible, materials are available, cut as appropriate, before the lesson starts. "We want the teacher to teach, not become a roving resource."
The technology syllabus at Thomas Telford, as in many secondary schools, is project-driven. Sets of projects are collectively decided by staff in the summer for the start of each year. These are set out on a grid, which indicates the project title, the period of time in weeks or in modules, the name of the member of staff with general oversight of the project, and links to the appropriate parts of the national curriculum.
Each project also has a scheme of work sheet, a teacher assessment document and a student project assessment sheet. The teacher in overall charge of the project is responsible for this part of the documentation.
Projects are closely defined and controlled lower down the school, becoming less prescriptive as time goes on. Mark Hudson explains, harking back to an earlier time in secondary technology when many pupils were designing things they could not make: "You have to engineer success into the projects, so students can build on a solid foundation of knowledge, understanding and skills, and are not pushed into situations where they don't see a way forward because what they face is unachievable."
In Year 7, a typical four-week project is "stylish sets", which looks at style and styling. (This is based on Royal College of Art technology resources, which are extensively used in the department, as are Nuffield technology materials.) Other Year 7 to 9 projects include designing litter pickers, using computer-aided design and manufacturing equipment to make products such as fridge magnets or puzzles that fit in a box; pewter casting and devising collapsible structures such as furniture that can be folded to save space.
By key stage 4, projects are "client based". "The key issue," says Mark Hudson, "is that students can't justify the project on the basis that they like it. They have to find a client."
Typical projects, therefore, are educational toys, or materials for primary schools, special schools, the on-site nursery or individuals with special needs. Thus one pupil designed a device enabling a wheelchair user to open and close a wheelie-bin.
The sixth-form emphasises projects that make links to industry, and students have, for example, helped engineering firm GKN and electronics firm Ricoh solve production-line problems. For Ricoh, sixth-formers undertook a systems and control project in which they had to design a unit to install a gear ring on a toner bottle in a photocopier. The job had previously been carried out manually by seven operatives, but is now completely automated by the students' design.
Always, the quality of products is stressed - furniture in the head's room, for example, made by sixth-formers, is of professional quality.
The belief at Thomas Telford is that the length of the teaching day - with "session three" compulsory in the upper part of the school - has its part to play in the school's examination successes. Beyond that, though, all are at pains to point out there is no mysterious formula. "We have some difficult children here," emphasises Mark Hudson. "The key ingredient is the enthusiasm of well-qualified staff, who work hard with the students and treat them as individuals. You are always trying to find that particular spark of interest that will motivate a student and take him or her forward."
SHINING A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
The CTCs were intended, at their foundation 10 years ago, as "beacons of excellence", with the assumption that teachers in other schools would learn by their example. In practice, this was difficult to achieve, and although a school such as Thomas Telford will have many visitors - including not only UK heads and teachers but a large number from overseas, actual partnership projects with local schools seem to be thinner on the ground than might have been hoped for.
Thomas Telford's headteacher, Kevin Satchwell, says: "The idea was sound, but the stage management was faulty. Teachers object to being told someone else is going to shine the light on the way forward."
He has much more faith in the present government's "beacon schools" initiative. "This time it's being thought through."
He points in particular to the availability of funding, likely to be pound;50,000 per beacon school. "If we can have proper resourcing and the resourcing goes into the school that needs it, you have a winning formula. If we become a beacon school, every penny we get from it will go to the other schools to support projects that will improve standards for the children. And I'll be approaching the local authorities of those schools to see if they will match our funding."
Such partnership projects, he says, will be non-threatening. "We can look for common ground, and work collectively to hit the targets. It's not a case of 'Come and look at us', but 'there may be some things that are of interest to you, and if we can find common ground we can work together'."
THOMAS TELFORD'S WORKING DAY
08.15 Students arrive
08.30 Session one begins, includes a staggered 20-minute break for breakfast
11.50-12.10 Tutor time
12.10-16.00 Session two, includes a stag- gered 40-minute break for lunch
16.00-17.40 Session three, compulsory for Years 10 and 11; indepen- dent learning time for sixth- form; optional sport, music, drama and so on for lower years