Trip the light fantastic

29th December 2000 at 00:00
One struggling design and technology department boosted achievement through a renewed team effort, writes Carolyn O'Grady

When Maggie Laing took up her post four years ago as head of design and technology at Grey Coat Hospital, a girls' comprehensive in the London borough of Westminster, the department was in the doldrums. Only 26 per cent of pupils had gained A-C grades at GCSE that year and, the year before, when the rest of the school was highly praised by the Office for Standards in Education, the Damp;T department had received a drubbing. "It wasn't as though the department was full of weak teachers and badly behaved pupils, nor was it underfunded," says Maggie Laing, "but everyone involved had lost their way. It lacked vision and cohesion and, perhaps most importantly, no one in the school really understood what Damp;T was about and what it could offer."

Her own enthusiasm helped to turn the department around. "Damp;T is the most fantastic subject on the curriculum. It gives the girls a chance to put learning into practice from right across the curriculum using maths, art, science and other subjects. Think of the skills used in identifying an area, in researching it, analysing that research; generating an appropriate idea and costing, planning and making a product. It needs creative flair linked to realism and imagination." By putting her vision into practice, she has helped to enable 69 per cent of pupils to achieve A-C grades at GCSE this year, a slight drop from last year when it was 72 per cent, but still 20 per cent above the national average.

How was it done? Maggie Laing emphasises that "great staff is the major factor". In May 1996 an almost new team drew up new schemes of work, started doing curriculum reviews and developed assessment booklets for each student. In a non-hierarchical management structure everyone had some input.

The food option was withdrawn from the curriculum. One reason was that "it invites stereotypes," says Maggie Laing. "Though we knew we were narrowing the curriculum down and removing a route to GCSE that had been followed by girls for years, taking it out of the curriculum pushes some girls out of these stereotypes and challenges them to make less traditional choices."

It also enables the department to spend more time and resources on the other areas and raise standards: approximately 50 per cent of time is spent on resistant materials; 25 per cent on textiles and 25 per cent on graphics. Around half the students now opt to do resistant materials, often considered a boys' subject.

Baseline funding was in place and, though some more money wa spent, "priority was given to organising what we already had and setting up new systems". Great effort went into creating administrative order and a bright, colourful, clean, well-organised environment which would be inviting to girls.

To raise the profile of Damp;T, display boards and showcases were set up showing continuously updated work; one display was filled with GCSE products. Exhibitions of work were also organised and prizes awarded. Another essential ingredient in this success story, says Maggie Laing, is that pupils are encouraged to work outside lesson time - a well-established practice in the school, which has a varied and rich extra curriculum programme. "From January to mid-March, which is the GCSE coursework deadline, the workshops are open three to four evenings a week with staff available, and we often do a whole Saturday - eight hours - of practical work. It's voluntary but about 80 per cent of the pupils turn up."

Imaginative projects form another successful component. Last year resistant materials projects included children's furniture, chairs and automata, and students made lights on the theme of the millennium: futuristic pieces that express optimism and faith in technology.

This year GCSE students are taking part in an Adopt a School scheme run by Architecture Link, the educational arm of London Open House, the charity that encourages architecture practices to work with schools. The project was to design lights based on buildings. An intensive session on architecture and art was given by a local architecture firm and students were encouraged to consider not only the final product, but the space within which it will live. They visited the Channel 4 building opposite the school and organised a trip to a lighting design company, where staff talked about how to create mood, contrasts and decoration with lights. Following a tight design brief, the girls then did extensive research over the summer holidays and in September started to generate ideas and develop them into design proposals.

The designs so far include lights that take elements of design and some concepts from Richard Rogers' Lloyds building in London; a folding light that refers to the Festival of Britain and Royal Festival Hall and an interpretation of Peckham Library. The project takes in all those skills and exhibits the creative flair which the department has been working so hard to stimulate.

For the Adopt a School scheme contact Victoria Thornton, Director, Architecture Link, Unit C1, Linton House, 39-51 Highgate Road, London NW5 1RS.Tel: 020 7267 7644. E-mail:

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