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Building blocks

Education - Pupils return to school with a fresh challenge this month - a GCSE in Construction and the Built Environment. Adrian Greeman reports.

Engineers who bemoan construction's low profile and lack of status can take heart from September onwards - the chance to learn about the industry has at last moved into the schoolroom with a GCSE.

Edexcel's Construction & the Built Environment GCSE has been developed by the Construction Industry Training Board's Construction Skills council, with significant involvement from the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The result is a course that introduces the skills needed for professional occupations such as project management, surveying and civil engineering as well as providing a practical introduction to crafts such as carpentry and joinery, bricklaying and building services.

Hopes are high that the course will encourage interest in construction in all types of pupils, from those who might go on to study for a professional qualification to those with more practical abilities.

'They might go on into the industry which would be excellent, ' says Julian Humphries, business area manager for recruitment and careers at CITB Construction Skills.

One of the central themes running through the qualification is sustainability and the built environment. Sustainability has been taught traditionally through Geography, which has not focused on its importance to the built environment. This new GCSE intends to give students the opportunity to learn how important sustainable development is to the environment in which they live and work.

Another gnificant feature of this GCSE is the attention paid to health and safety. This is considered to be so important that it forms part of all the practical activities. There is also an external assessment to test knowledge and understanding.

From September around 1,000 pupils will learn the new discipline in around 60 schools and further education colleges which have been selected for trialling the courses, testing out the subject range and teaching pattern, and proofing the assessment and examination structure.

Assuming trials go well for the new course, Construction & the Built Environment will join the subject list available for study at most schools from September 2007 onwards - with a single or double GCSE option in the curriculum, aimed at 14-16 year olds.

The course has been under development for about three years as part of the government's policy to introduce more vocational subjects into schools. 'Not only does it meet the government's requirements; it may go some way towards encouraging young people to consider vocational courses from an early age, ' says Edexcel chief executive John Kerr.

CITB has been the main player in the development of the course, explains Humphries. 'We worked with Edexcel and to some extent with the City & Guilds to establish some broad criteria for the course, setting the shape and line of the content, ' he says.

'They have the skills to ensure that the academic side matches the requirement laid down by the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority which sets the legal basis for GCSE, but we can help on the content.' CITB has been guided by a 'stakeholders' committee composed of a range of industry bodies including the ICE and the Royal Institute of British Architects, plus various supportive clients and companies which include contractors Costain and Willmott Dixon. The committee meets quarterly.

'One of its main functions is to ensure that the course is up to date and relevant and paints a picture of the industry as it is today, rather than in the past, ' says Humphries.

The course will have two sections: a base course built around a core module on the built environment and including work on sustainability, environmental issues and site practice; and an extended course covering a much wider variety of subjects.

The extended course will really allow students to get their teeth stuck into construction issues and will lead to a double GCSE qualification at the end.

It will have two different lines depending on which modules any particular school takes up, explains Steven Manley, who has been head of the content writing team for the courses. Manley has been a teacher for 14 years but before that was a chartered quantity surveyor.

One side of the double award is design orientated and requires a relatively technical module in construction processes and technology to be completed first, followed by options in building design and surveying as well as those from the more practical side.

To take the construction technology option students will need mathematical skills, he says. It might be pursued by those with an ambition to head towards degrees in engineering or architecture. At his own school he finds girls more than boys are choosing the technology option. The boys prefer the more practical side.

Manley says he would also like to see an A level developed with a direct line through to the industry and a course at college level. But this ambition is some way off yet as Edexcel wants to see the basic course established first.

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