The Business Profile: Valerie Bragg - Giving Children a Head Start in Life; Bright Spark: College Has Technology to Create Switched-On Students
Williams, Philip, The Birmingham Post (England)
For a talked-about teacher, Valerie Bragg had a pretty strange start to her professional career.
She didn't particularly like school - 'I was never switched on' - and had to have her arm twisted to go into teaching when she left university.
'It took a little time to persuade me.'
She graduated in zoology with chemistry from Leicester and had been determined to pursue a career in research for the Ministry of Agriculture, studying how to get more food for humans out of the sea.
But her ambition was cut short when she discovered she wouldn't be allowed to get to the cutting edge of that study because she was a woman and trawlers had men-only crews. A MAFF desk job was the best she could hope for.
She said she would try teaching - and has never looked back, partly because of her own indifferent school days. In her book, teachers have to shine and inspire or find something else to do.
'Appointing teachers, we have to see that they are enthusiastic. It often doesn't seem so, but teaching is a fantastic opportunity for a creative career. One of my aims is to get every child looking and being switched on and excited.'
She taught in Surrey, in Essex, Worcester, Birmingham and Pershore before taking her first headship at comprehensive Stourport High School.
Four years there convinced her she could make a difference and when the Government set up its first City Technical College in Birmingham in 1987 and she learned what kind of freedom she would have in setting a curriculum and appointing all her own staff, she went for it and landed the job.
Ten years on, the Kingshurst-based college is a runaway, model success.
The Government plan was for a new approach to inclusive education in deprived urban areas, bringing together industry, commerce and education.
The curriculum had to have a heavy vocational input but conventional academic excellence was also offered.
Kingshurst, in partnership with Midland companies, put together such a successful combination, it has provided an example for the 14 other CTCs which followed and it is now set to export the model to other failing schools.
Mrs Bragg didn't have much to work with.
The catchment area of Chelmsley Wood, Kingshurst, Kitts Green and Shard End contains some of the most deprived and problem-scarred council estates in the Midlands and the funding formula gave her little advantage over the run-of-the-mill comprehensives that have often failed in such areas.
About 17 per cent of students in the catchment stayed on beyond 16 and the number going on to higher education was almost zero. They were dole queue fodder, many considered unemployable by local companies, without the numeracy, literacy, communication and confidence skills they looked for.
Mrs Bragg threw open the school gates to businesses, inviting them in as sponsors, donors, a source of ideas and offered them school resources for projects and small joint ventures, as well as the older pupils as potential employees. They responded enthusiastically.
'The whole idea is based on technology in the broadest sense in which you use it in almost everything you do, be it in Cadcam engineering or IT equipment in tourism and travel or the performing arts.
'The brief was to improve the quality of education and to enable the parents and the families of the children to see the value of qualifications.'
The revolution started with the internal layout and look of the buildings. Every classroom is fitted with computer trunking. Few rooms are conventional shapes and modern furniture and bright colours are used everywhere. Corridors are carpeted.
The feel is of a further education college and the kids are given the privileges reserved at most schools for sixth formers. No doors are locked. The main entrance is modelled on a shopping centre.
Discipline is at a minimum, encouragement at a premium. …