Liz Stevenson loves clocks. She collects them and delights in finding new ones. She is also a technology teacher always on the lookout for interesting projects. On a holiday visit to Burleigh House, a stately home in Lincolnshire, the two things came together when she saw some unusual contemporary papier mache clocks for sale in the gallery. Knowing a good thing when she saw one, she took the designer's name and gave him a call.
That encounter resulted in a beautiful relationship for her pupils and the clockmaker, Paul Morris. Inspired by his work, she asked if he would in turn help inspire her design and technology pupils to make their own. Delighted, he agreed, coming to her school to work with Year 9 students and spending an additional day judging the completed clocks for a prize ceremony at the end of the project.
What might be a run of the mill story about a good teacher making links with a kindly part-time clockmaker who offers to do a residency is much more than that. It is a story about how inspiring socially excluded young people through technology can give them self-esteem, raise their attainment and open their eyes to the world outside their own insular one.
Liz Stevenson works at Pennywell School in Sunderland. It is set in an area that has become a cliche in the annals of North-east economic blight: surrounded by two huge estates where unemployment is rife, where burglaries are way above the national average, where a culture of drugs, domestic violence and gangs oppress and depress residents, particularly the young. It is not a place where designers have dared to tread before, let alone a place where young people have ever come face to face with someone who sells their own crafted products. But now the barriers have been broken down and spirits are high.
The project brief that Ms Stevenson set her Year 9s, inspired by Paul Morris's work, was to design and make the prototype of an unusual clock for a gift catalogue using recycled materials. The project was structured, she says, "so that the emphasis was on designing and making techniques and recycling. It built on learning earlier in the key stage which guided pupils towards more independent learning". The product had to be appropriately researched and accompanied by specifications, design ideas, models and a final evaluation, all in 14 weeks.
Pupils received guidance from their teacher in the initial planning and they made contact with Paul Morris through faxes and phone calls to talk about ideas. A whole day was made free to work with him. "To begin with, they were in awe of this guy. They had preconceived ideas about what a practising designer would be like and were terribly nervous about meeting him." But once they did, their jitters were dispelled. He is an ordinary person, albeit a very talented one, whose day job is working for the Royal Mail.
Why did Liz Stevenson centre such an ambitious project on clocks? Are they not a bit of a design and technology cliche? Not to her mnd. Apart from having a personal passion for them, "they give huge scope for innovation and besides, clockwork mechanisms are fairly inexpensive". They also lend themselves well to recyclable materials, such as the paper and paste of papier mache. "We'd recently had an environment week in the school so I wanted them to be more aware of resources and recycling issues." To help kick-start their imaginations, the students had to create their own moodboard or colour collage, as is used in industry. Once their ideas were developed, they sampled different techniques and processes as they set about analysing existing products. Then the design ideas were worked out through the design portfolio and were evaluated individually as well as through class surveys. Product specifications were prepared with an equipment and cutting list, again of the kind used in industry, with quality control and assurance methods in place when the products were manufactured.
Then came the making bit. It was the students' responsibility to bring in old newspapers, magazines and boxes from local supermarkets, and the technology department provided the wallpaper paste. Each clock was highly individualised. Because expense was no barrier to size, some were enormous, others more conventional in scale. One looks as if it took its inspiration from the Millennium Dome, another from a Joan M!ro painting, some from nature, at least one from somewhere outside our galaxy.
"I told the kids to let their imaginations run riot," says their teacher. "Some lacked confidence at the beginning and kept to the conventional, but we looked at techniques to decorate them in ways that made them unconventional, such as paint splattering. By the end, they all knew that their products were stunning."
They were not the only ones. The project attracted a lot of attention from the rest of the school. Nothing like it had been done before and, to give it the status it deserved, the clocks went on display to impress passersby.
They impressed their GCSE coursework assessors, too. According to Liz Stevenson, "many have achieved higher than average levels of attainment for their age group in the project". But perhaps more to the point, through rewards, merits, certificates and positive feedback in the classroom each step of the way, the pupils' capabilities and self-confidence have been raised. "Through being part of a challenging project such as this, which has given scope for personal expression and individual interpretation, they've been supported and stretched to achieve their maximum potential," says their proud teacher. "It's made them feel special, too." Partly as a result of their new-found confidence, a few have decided to continue with technology at A-level.
For Liz Stevenson, if there is one lesson to be learned from this project, it is that you cannot judge a book by its cover. "People have preconceptions about the Pennywell Estate because of all its social exclusion problems. We get damned in these areas often, but these kids have so much creativity in them, so much untapped potential."