As a result of a CBI initiative business is now on the curriculum for teachers, and the lesson is for them as well as their pupils. Anita van de Vliet follows the learning process.
The gulf between education and industry in Britain has been much remarked upon and much lamented as an alleged cause of the country's anti-industrial culture. The Teacher Placement Service is one major initiative designed to bridge the gap. Funded by the Department of Employment and managed nationally by Understanding British Industry (part of the CBI Education Foundation), this aims to provide 10% of teachers with short spells in business each year, in the hope that the experience will help them to prepare their school children for employment, training and lifetime learning.
The service operates through a network of local business education partnerships that help teachers to define their objectives and to negotiate the most appropriate placement. Since its foundation in 1989, it has enabled over 100,000 teachers to dust off the chalk of the classroom and see life at the chalkface. But how exactly, one wonders, do these placements work? Indeed, do they really work, in the sense of leading to a greater understanding on the teachers' part and of influencing how and what they teach, or is it just a case of a week off school? Intrigued, your reporter went along to find out.
The first task was to choose a suitable placement out of the very wide range available. There were schools and colleges from Suffolk to Scotland sending teachers to a host of organisations, large and small, in both the UK and Europe; to manufacturers of plastic bottles, food producers, motor-car makers, retailers, building societies, theatre companies, the police. There was a further choice when it came to the nature of the assignment. Some teachers were about to embark on intensive workshops specifically on selection and interviewing; some were women teachers poised to shadow women managers; others were off on a five-day placement studying spark-plug manufacture for ultimate use by pupils studying for vocational qualifications (GNVQ levels two and three). In the end, I elected to accompany a primary-school teacher, one Mandy Lacey, on her three-day placement at Hugh Mackay, the Durham-based carpet manufacturers. Off I set to this lovely hillside city and thence to the nearby Dragonville industrial estate, home to Mackays.
Lacey hails from St Clare's Roman Catholic Primary School in Middlesbrough, Cleveland - a small school with some 200 pupils and a staff of eight teachers plus headmistress. Any expectations of a wide-eyed ingenue, ignorant of commercial and industrial realities, were misplaced. She had worked in various clerical jobs in industry before joining the teaching profession some 18 years ago, and her childhood in Bradford, then still humming with woollen mills and wool-related trades, had also left its mark, she believes. In any case, it is wholly inaccurate (although common) to think of primary-school teachers as somehow less sophisticated and less well qualified than their secondary counterparts. 'We're always on courses. It's a continuing process,' she remarks, adding that she herself starts a MA course in the autumn.
Mackay was her own choice of placement, Lacey says. Cleveland has a good record in promoting industry-education links, with such companies as ICI and British Steel playing a constructive role. (Indeed, one cannot help thinking that the alleged anti-industrial culture of the British does not afflict all the inhabitants of these islands equally, and may be an aspect of the North-South divide.) Mindful, too, that it is serving an industrial region, the local educational authority has emphasised technology in the curriculum, and has, unusually, given it equal weight with English, maths and science as a core subject. 'Cleveland was up and running with design and information-technology courses before it was a national curriculum requirement,' Lacey points out. She herself is the school's technology co-ordinator for design, and as such, thought that a carpet maker would be of greater relevance than the chemical industry, for example.
Mackay, for its part, weaves sumptuous Wilton and Axminster carpets for the likes of Queen Elizabeth II (both the monarch and the ship) and high-grade tufted carpet for lesser mortals. It employs 435 people, turns over around £25 million a year and exports around 30% of output. Despite the name, the company has no Scottish connections; its history in Durham stretches back to 1903 and before that, as Hendersons, back to the early 19th century. In 1990 it was taken over by the Allied Textile Group, a change of ownership that has coincided with the recession to induce a stringent approach to costs.
The company has long played a part in the local educational scene, providing work placements for students as well as teachers. 'We are in a traditional industry developing traditional skills, and we want people to understand and be interested,' comments personnel services director Frank Steanson, who co-ordinated the placement. 'Looking at it from a broader perspective, we see this educational liaison work as part of our community relations.' Listening to Lacey and Steanson's easy exchange of views and information, I realised (not without a twinge of disappointment) that this particular encounter between business and education was not, after all, going to be a re-enactment of David Lodge's Nice Work.
That novel, readers may recall, presents the clash and interplay between protagonists who embody two very different cultures - literary theory and the idealism of the ivory tower on the one hand, and the grinding realities of engineering and foundry works on the other - who are flung together without any preparation and whose initial ignorance of each other's ways of life is well-nigh total.
This was clearly not the case with Lacey and Mackay. Lacey had drawn up a clear list of objectives for her visit: to observe the company's management structure and organisation and see if this could in any way be transferred to her school; to learn more about the design process, since her placement was part of a school-wide weaving project; obviously, to deepen her appreciation of the 'world of work' so that she could convey this to her pupils; and to develop skills in problem-solving, co-operation, collaboration and organisation.
Steanson, meanwhile, comments that the company has, over the past few years, identified teachers' needs more precisely. He had planned the placement jointly with the local teacher placement officer (one of the 150 who run the Teacher Placement Service at the local level); and he had mapped out Lacey's specific programme during her three-day visit with her objectives in mind. 'I felt that my time there had been properly planned from the moment I arrived,' she observes approvingly.
That programme starts with a general induction, and an explanation of the work flow and the company's (very tight) management structure. It continues with an afternoon in the design studio, the source of some 3,000 special designs for bespoke carpets from Mackay's team of just eight designers each year. One young designer explains to Lacey that part of the challenge of designing carpets comes from working within 'so many restraints': these constraints arise not only from the technical limitations of each type of weaving (theoretically, only five colours possible with Wilton, eight with Axminster, although these numbers can be extended through mathematical and design wizardry), but also from the customer's requirements and whims.
'Do you ever say to a customer, no, that's impossible?' asks Lacey, trying to gauge how far this commitment to customer service extended. 'No,' comes the resolute answer, 'provided he'll pay for it.' For Mackay, which does sell retail carpets from stock but whose speciality is bespoke carpets, the saying that the customer rules, so often merely a slogan, really is absolutely binding. That customer could be an interior designer, in which case designs would be evolved collaboratively, by fax and by phone. 'But some customers now are becoming as discerning and demanding as interior designers themselves.'
Day one winds to a close with an explanation and demonstration of how the designs are transferred to the Jacquard cards, which in turn determine the weaving pattern on the loom. Day two is spent mainly in the mill itself, a great cavern reverberating with the pounding and clattering of giant looms but with an atmosphere that is far from dark or satanic - a visual feast, rather, given the brilliance of the colours of the yarns and the richness of the finished carpets. Under the tutelage of Ronny Schofield, weaving training instructor and master weaver, whose father and grandfather had been weavers before him (the latter in Hendersons), Lacey is taken smartly through the entire process of carpet manufacture, from the winding of the yarn from jumbled hanks on to bobbins or cones, through loading the bobbins on to the creels (8,064 such bobbins to a 12ft loom, all changed by hand), the different methods of weaving (Wilton and Axminster), to 'picking' out any flaws, and sewing the strips of carpet to fit the required architectural space.
Steanson had wisely thought fit to spare her a tour of the accounting and credit control department as irrelevant to her purposes; the processes of job pricing and preparing quotations were likewise left to the imagination. But she was shown the careful monitoring of yarn shades against Mackay's 360 standard shades, and the equally stern testing or measuring of strength and moisture content (to be sure that customers are being given their due weight of wool) and flammability, as aspects of the company's rigorous quality control procedures.
Day three is rather less arduous: a showing of a 1929 silent movie about Mackay (graphic proof of how little the technology and processes of weaving have changed, apart from the electronic gadgetry) and of a company video of later date, followed by a meeting with Geoff Antoncich. He is in charge of both product development and quality assurance (Mackay's staff are certainly not under-employed). We discover him wedged in behind piles of samples, snippets and offcuts.
In product development, he explains, one of the main quests is to capture more aircraft business, in order to use spare capacity on the Wilton looms. The company has already supplied a range of airlines including Virgin, Britannia, KLM, El Al, Monarch and Transavia, as well as piling on the luxury in Vulcan jets for Saudi Arabian potentates. The challenge with carpeting for airlines is to reduce weight and eliminate flammability, hence Mackay's experiments with carbon fibre, which will not burn even at 1,000 deg C.
The company's other main line of product development is in high-quality carpet tiles, of special importance to buildings with computer installations beneath the raised floor. Mackay's work is not on the cheaper tiles where the design is overprinted on the woven material, but on a far superior version where the design is woven in, posing a special challenge to the designers. 'We're at the forefront of this area,' says Antoncich. 'No one else has produced both broadloom and tiles.'
After another hearty sandwich lunch from the Mackay canteen and a rounding off discussion, Lacey heads back to Cleveland to finish her report, which will be sent to her headmistress, the school governors, to Mackay, to the local education business partnership and to the parent helpers who would be taking part in the forthcoming school weaving project.
She goes off laden with samples and skeins of yarn for use in the weaving project, but what else did she feel she had gained? Had her objectives been fulfilled? It was, she says, too early to say whether any of the principles of management and organisation had any bearing on the school, the 'end product being so very different'. The design studio and the designs unfolding on the woven carpets, however, were an inspiration (a banner with the school logo - the Eucharist - was one thought for the weaving project), and she would explore with her IT technology co-ordinator colleague the extent to which the school's computers could be used for equivalent purposes. New thoughts in the field of colour, she says, stem not just from the design studio but from the intense shades of the yarns winding down into the looms.
One of her intentions, on returning to school, was to help her pupils to understand that all the objects around them had actually been made, and that their activities in school could be related to the 'real' world of work. Another was to show that skills such as weaving, if not used for industry, could be used for leisure. Two aspects of the 'world of work' at Mackay had struck her especially. One was the all-pervasive attention to quality, with inspection at the most minute level (spotting flecks in the yarn, for example) and at every point in the production process. The other impression was the degree of commitment, loyalty, indeed enjoyment, among the employees - particularly the weavers for the craft of weaving, with its intimate relationship between weaver and loom, is far from soulless or anonymous. From product development and testing, she thought, could come useful subject matter for the children's science lessons; the video (of which she took a copy) would provide historical material.
Referring to the aims of the project as a whole to 'develop skills in problem solving, co-operation, collaboration and organisation', she comments that these applied partly to the children, who would find that some of the ideas they came up with would need adaptation to enter the realm of the possible, but also to the teachers, whose organisation of the project would be constrained by the school timetable.
The real test of the effectiveness of the placement, she agrees, would be to ask the children, teachers and parents (and grandparents) in a few months' time. But in the meanwhile, although the placement did not (to my knowledge) contain the romantic element of the David Lodge novel, the experience in all other respects had been Nice Work indeed.