A mobile workshop is bringing an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of tools to the chosen few at five Surrey schools, giving them a real taste of the building site

It’s a Friday afternoon and a group of Ash Manor school’s year 10 pupils have escaped the confines of their classrooms to sit in the autumn sunshine. They are seated in a semi-circle under a canopy that extends from the roof of a large white van. Wearing dark blue overalls, steel-toe-capped boots (ranging from size five to 14) and looks of fixed concentration, all 12 boys are watching a soldering demonstration.

Today was the fourth time the unremarkable looking van – aka Building Services Engineering Classroom – made its way across the Surrey school’s grounds, largely unnoticed by most of the pupils. Only the small group of 14 and 15 year olds are stirred by its arrival. They were put forward by their teachers to take part in the plumbing, ventilation and electrics workshops to gain recognised vocational qualifications.

The mobile workshop, created by Surrey Education Business Partnership and partly funded by the Construction Youth Trust, will be at the school every week for two years as the group makes its way through a structured series of lessons and folder work leading to Open College Network accreditations.

Ash Manor is one of five schools that pays a fee for the weekly sessions with the van, which contains a pipe-bending machine, blowtorches, soldering irons, hard hats, safety equipment and drawers of fittings. The classroom allows the pupils to use facilities that their schools could not otherwise afford. These include the specialist teaching of Garry Gardner, a former contracts engineer for a pipework company who packed up his own domestic central heating and plumbing business in August to go out with the van instead.

One of the boys, a spiky-haired 14 year old, recalls his surprise when the classroom first arrived. “I thought it was just a normal van, but it’s got everything you need to do plumbing, bending and soldering,” he says. “I’m enjoying coming out here into the open and having a laugh. I would be doing double PE right now, but I’d rather be doing this; it’s much more fun.”

Gardner manages to escape for a few minutes to talk about the van. He smiles at the lads’ enthusiasm. “It’s like Aladdin’s cave to them. They see all the things they’ll be introduced to further up the road,” he says. “They’re particularly keen to get their hands on the blowtorches and soldering irons, but they haven’t been allowed in the back of the van yet. We have to go through all of the health and safety first, then they’ll be allowed access to the van to get tools.”

The sessions with the van are designed to replicate the workplace – all of the materials in the van have their own place, just as they would in a site tool room, and the pupils have to take responsibility for their own work books, punctuality and attendance.

The kids are keen to get their hands on the blowtorches and soldering irons, but they haven’t been allowed in the back of the van yet

Garry Gardner

“This lot are in year 10, so they’re thinking of the work they’ll be doing. The whole thing’s designed to be a semi-work environment.”

Despite providing a less formal atmosphere than the boys will be used to in their other lessons, Gardner has encountered no behavioural problems.

“I don’t tell them off, and we discuss and get around problems,” he explains. “If they messed about in a work environment, they’d just be let go. There are plenty of others who would take their place. At one school in Surbiton, places on the Building Services Engineering Classroom were oversubscribed three times.”

Whatever the weather, work always takes place at the side of the van – under a canopy if it’s wet and windy. If the boys were on a real building site, they wouldn’t be able to run indoors at the first sight of a black cloud. “We don’t want to move inside unless the weather’s really bad. It’s not a problem – they get so involved in the work, they don’t notice the weather,” says Gardner.

Although he has only been in the job for a few months, Gardner is loving working with the van as much as his pupils.

“I’m helping kids from a similar background to me, into an industry I grew to love,” he says happily, before rushing back to take control of the group, most of whom are starting to get impatient – they want the lesson to start again. The rest are engrossed in a game of treading on each other’s steel toe-caps to see if it hurts.

A van for all reasons