Fashion – the smart choice for schools

April 2, 2012 by
Education   2 Comments

You may have spent the past 10 years wrangling them into a uniform or wading through bedroom floors full of discarded clothes in despair, but by the time most modern teenagers reach senior school, they are surprisingly fashion conscious. For some this will mean a diet of Jack Wills and Abercrombie & Fitch, for others – trips to Camden Market with friends for army coats and Doc Martens; although for many boys, chic is a T-shirt that still smells clean-ish.

Top work: Creativity at Leweston

But a growing cohort of students – of both sexes – is taking fashion more seriously, with a long-term view towards working (either as a designer, writer, stylist, buyer or retailer) in one of the UK’s most booming industries, worth more than £21bn a year. In response, a number of schools are offering sophisticated A-level courses in textile art and design which see students developing their own sense of style while gaining skills in fashion, sewing, and pattern-cutting to a level often equal to that offered at Foundation Level or beyond. Students who choose this subject typical achieve strong marks with motivation high and work correspondingly diligent. And while such an option still gets stigmatised as ‘soft’ by some parents and pupils, teachers confirm that it is highly vocational, translating into courses and jobs well. Nor is it the easy option of school myth. Louise Fellingham, who joined the Design department at Bedales school, Hampshire, three years ago and teaches specific fashion-oriented skills to students from age 13 to A level, explains: ‘We run an ambitious course which links fashion design and dressmaking skills to the real demands of business and industry. Our students must produce a sketchbook diary (for inspiration), a presentation board for a client and a manufacturing pack which mirrors the documents they would be expected to turn out in the real world. They also learn pattern-cutting, work on professional standard equipment whether mannequins or machines, and produce garments to the highest standards.

Fashion at Bedales

‘Not surprisingly, our A Level course is over subscribed (with an average of 15 places in yr 6.1 and 6.2 combined), and results are mostly As and Bs, with many students being offered a place on a BA course (without the need for a foundation course) and seven girls getting into the London College of Fashion (LCF) last year alone. One of our leavers has won a place on the prestigious Contour course at the LCF, where 700 applicants (mostly from Foundation courses, not school) compete for 20 places. I’m not sure the specialised level at which we teach is offered anywhere else. And the interest filters down the school, with pupils performing strongly at BAC (Bedales Assessed Courses – recognised equivalent to GCSE). ’ The A level is currently called Product Design but the main focus is fashion.

At Leweston School, Dorset, textiles and dressmaking was previously taught as part of a mixed areas A Level course including Fine Art and Graphic Design. Five years ago, the school brought in a specific A-Level in Textile Design (in 2011, students achieved 4 A* for UV1 and 2 A’s AS).  Amanda Wedge, a current Governor of the Catholic independent day and boarding school, whose two ‘very arty’ daughters were pupils, explains how modern ‘sewing lessons’ work throughout the school:

‘The textiles and fashion courses taught at Leweston offers different techniques from fabric manipulation to screen printing. The basics of sewing are still taught as a necessity to build on garment construction skills, but this generation’s classes revolve around creativity and experimentation unique to the pupil. We offer the girls an opportunity to explore a range of creative areas. For example, pupils have learnt to machine sew metal dresses and screen printing on to leather.’  She recalls: ‘I did an ‘O’ level in Sewing and made a smocked dress for a baby, which typically at the Convent I attended we were all encouraged to do, and yet today the girls at Leweston can produce anything from a semi-precious crown, to a pair of shoes and everything and anything else  in-between… My meagre sewing skills have not come in handy at all although I can sew on a button. But both my girls are taking their skills on into careers in fashion design and photography.’

Textiles has been offered as a specific A Level course since 1998 at Caterham School in Surrey, which offers co-educational day and boarding from 3-18, says Marilyn Kyle, Director of the school’s Art and Design Faculty . Numbers on the course have been as high as 14 but they probably get an average of 6 at AS level and 4 at A2.  Grades are high:  100 per cent A & B grades since 2002, mostly As.

Marilyn says: ‘The subject has evolved hugely from the old needlework and sewing classes of a previous generation which focussed on using pre-packaged patterns and learning how to make a garment or object: a skills-based approach which served the needs of the era and gave a feel-good factor to girls (boys then did wood/metalwork).

‘Now, students (mainly girls but some boys) begin with an introduction of skills and approaches, making samples of appliqué, machine stitch, or batik.  They look at the work of artists and designers, analysing their work in order to understand how it was made, why it was made for example.  Students then work from a theme such as ‘Fold’ or ‘Organic/Inorganic’, exploring their own ideas through drawing, photographing, collecting, then experimenting with media, techniques and processes, always learning from and making connections with artists and designers.  They work to a final piece which can range from fine art textile pieces, through hangings and furnishings to fashion garments.’

Key skills are still crucial. Says Amanda Wedge: ‘Garment construction is one of the most challenging techniques we teach at Leweston. We also teach screen printing, understanding ideas of pattern repeats and placements of designs which are difficult but worthwhile when the outcomes are achieved. A current area of development is the student’s use of Photoshop manipulating images and creating patterns via CAD.

‘For Year 7 through to Year 9 the emphasis is on building the girls’ skills and broadening their awareness of art and design. The girls have the opportunity to experiment with a wide range of materials and research the work of artists and designers both historical and contemporary. The lower school learn the basics of fashion illustration, Design boards and creating mini projects that are entered into our school fashion show. The standard at GCSE is very high and girls have the opportunity to build on the skills formed earlier. The broad creative areas the girls explore result in vibrant imaginative work which displays their enthusiasm and desire to create impressive garments.’

Once the girls get to A Level, she explains: ‘The girls get the opportunity to attend weekly life drawing classes which we run in association with the Art Department of Sherborne School. This prepares students in two stages for those that continue the specialism to degree level or to explore other areas of art and design on a foundation course. The design teachers guide and advise the students in applying for courses. We have a 100 per cent success rate for students gaining places in Higher education.’

Detail from swing coat (Bedales)

At Bedales, Sam Wilkins, the department technician, teaches students to develop patterns from blocks, as they will be required to do at university or beyond. He confirms that learning professional standards of pattern cutting is one of the most challenging things the children can learn. ‘This is degree level stuff,’ he says. ‘But I pass on my old tutor’s advice: if you don’t know how to make something, how can you design it?’ Confirms Louise Fellingham: ‘We are turning out makers and problem solvers, who also have to face some tough academic work: questions on the theory papers will cover ethical fashion, manufacture of materials and history of iconic design and designers. And the children live up the standards we set. They are passionate about this subject, put in a lot of hours, and have high personal levels of quality control.’

In the first year at Bedales Sixth Form, the students will concentrate on one item: designing and making a jacket, as it encompasses the full gamut of practical skills, and they cannot afford to waste time (many will be taking three other subjects). In 62, the sky is the limit. ‘Obviously, fashion is fashionable,’ says Louise. ‘So they want to design clothes. But students have also made bags, and umbrellas that light up when opened, in conjunction with other areas of the design department.’ One recent student even created her own wooden toggles and leather belt for a coat.

The most obvious next step for students will be Textiles and Fashion degree courses. ‘However,’ says Marilyn, ‘we have found that students studying Textiles as well as Fine Art, wishing to go on in their study of Art and Design via an Art Foundation course (still the predominant route into top Art Schools for degrees) will be applying with a superb portfolio and are almost always offered an unconditional place at a top Art School. Textiles (and Art) also give them terrific transferable skills of being able to think in a creative and open way, giving them the ability to take an idea and run with it, independently:  something which is loved in many fields including business!’ Frustratingly, though, she admits, it is ‘definitely perceived as a soft subject and something for the non-academic student.  However, all Art subjects require a terrific amount of independent, critical and analytical thinking as well as being a good practitioner – Anna Church, head of textiles (currently on maternity leave) describes the other subjects as impractical subjects.’

Adds Amanda Wedge: ‘You shouldn’t automatically drop textile design as an A level, even if you plan to study something more traditional or academic such as law. The course is demanding on student’s time but it is interesting that a number of girls who go on to study other demanding subjects at university still choose to also study Textile Design.’ At Bedales, future fashionistas are also studying literature, maths and physics – the former ideal for combining with journalism (as one recent leaver has found), and the latter two wonderful complementary to technical skills.

Meanwhile, budding fashion designers who have been talked into studying the sciences or languages at A Level, or whose schools don’t offer the A level as an option, shouldn’t give up hope either. There are specific textile foundation courses or BA courses which allow for technical beginners; however studying your passion at school to such an intensive level does give a head start and Art A Level will be a must.  ‘Not all schools offer Textiles A Level,’ says Marilyn Kyle, ‘so many students will be applying with either A levels, including Art, or GCSEs, including Art, to begin a 2-year BTEC or similar course.’

So what makes these schools stand out amongst their rivals? Says Amanda Wedge: ‘As part of their research for projects all Leweston girls get the opportunity to visit exhibitions locally and in London as well as drawing on the school’s wonderful surrounding countryside. An important part of our aim to broaden the girls’ visual awareness is the annual art study tours which we organise for sixth form and GCSE students. Previous destinations have included Venice, Florence, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Washington and Barcelona. In addition to these abroad trips we take textile students annually to the Knit and Stitch show at Alexandra Palace, viewing new designers and seeing demonstrations of specialist textile techniques.’

Marilyn Kyle says the way which Art & Design courses are taught at Caterham is crucial. ‘We work from the students’ strengths and interests.  Whatever they do is their idea and the teacher is in continuous dialogue with the student about their work and ideas – so the student becomes the expert in their own work.  Of course, the teacher is ensuring that the student is ‘ticking all the boxes’ which are required by the exam board – it is not a ‘free for all’ approach!  Students are also surprised by how hard they have to think, often saying that they find Textiles and Art the hardest of their A level subjects – they do have to be so multi skilled, working theoretically as well as practically.

From the teaching side, the hardest challenge is to get students to think in an open way. 

Other skills vary from student to student:  some will easily be able to draw figures direct with a sewing machine whilst others will never grasp it.  Some will be able to master the varied print techniques.  There are so many different and some quite complex skills which are taught here.’

Bedalians have a strong reputation in all design work, confirms Louise Fellingham, ‘but this department is very special. We’ve asked former pupils who are now at the top colleges what we could do better. A recent student now at Central St Martins – the centre of fashion design at the moment – told me: ‘Nothing.’ I don’t think they realise until they leave how special it is here: the facilities which are brilliant, the support from dedicated design staff including Sam and Helen Howarth who specialises in surface textiles in particular, the possibilities and the ownership of their work.’

But parents still need to know – where will a course in textile design take their budding Coco Chanels? According to the Times Good University Guide 2012, 38 per cent of art and design students end up in graduate level jobs with an average salary of about £17,000.

Caterham leavers include one who set up a bespoke design company, and another who is now making props for films and the BBC. At Leweston, Mrs Wedge says: ‘This year we have had students go to Camberwell and the London College of Fashion (LCF), including specialist courses. One alumna Charlotte Patton is attending the LCF for the Cordwainers’ Shoe Design degree course. Another took a foundation course, and went on to study Animation at Falmouth College of Art and Design. And a recent leaver has just finished her fashion design degree and been selected by VOGUE as one of the 10 new Graduates to look out for in the future.’

Amanda Wedge confirms: ‘The Leweston Fashion Show, an annual showcase of textiles throughout the school, produced in the main by the girls, who also learn skills in lighting and soundtrack, is the premier event to show the school’s high standards of creativity. This year we have had such a range of final pieces, from lampshades to felt boots. We are always intensely proud of all our students’ creations.’

At Caterham, staff have been impressed by ‘amazing corsets; bizarre textile sculptures in one young man’s end of year exhibition; delicate printed and layered fabric hangings which appeared a couple of years ago; some fabulous knotted rope garments in last year’s show; and laser cut paper dresses and the accompanying photographs.’

Louise Fellingham shows me one of her students’ recent garments: a perfect winter swing coat, made with detachable faux fur collar; it could be hanging in a Bond Street shop window with a four-figure price tag. Inside, she reveals, two pockets made of silk maps of the London Underground and the Paris Metro. ‘Our students learn to take their ideas one step further. To innovate and to surprise. We’re incredibly proud of them.’

What next?

Studying fashion at university to BA level will take three years, although many are offered as sandwich courses, with industry placement or internships between the second and third years. Work experience on the CV is vital.  Most people take a foundation course in art and design, textiles or fashion. A-Level art or textiles a must for design courses. Passion is vital.

Best universities (according to the Complete University Guide) include Edinburgh (first place), Kent, Heriot-Watt and Leeds, with course satisfaction greatest at Lincoln and Falmouth. Art colleges such as Central St Martins, Camberwell and Goldsmiths (both London) are still the most sought after places to start if your heart is set on being a true couture designer.

Budding fashion journalists should enter the prestigious annual Vogue Talent Contest, for young writers every January, which offers under-25s the chance to win an internship at Vogue itself.

If you want to get straight into industry after school, see or for specific opportunities in fashion and textiles.

The central-London Fashion Retail Academy, a National Skills Academy supported by high street fashion names, offers short and long courses designed to get school leavers working in the fashion industry.

Alternately, contact companies such as the Arcadia Group (Dorothy Perkins, TopShop, Wallis), River Island or Marks and Spencer  for specific careers information as fashion groups place a high degree of importance on internal training and careers progression:

Fashion Alumnae

Alice Dellal

Barnard Castle School: Giles Deacon

Bedales: Sophie Dahl; Alice Dellal

Blackheath High School: Mary Quant

Bryanston:  Jasper Conran

Cheltenham Ladies College: Amanda Wakeley; Katherine Hamnett

Downe House:Lulu Guinness

Lulu Guinness

Harrow: Henry Conway

Heathfield St Mary’s: Tamara Mellon; Savannah & Sienna Miller; Isabella Blow

Manchester Grammar School: William Baker

New Hall School: Anya Hindmarch

North London Collegiate School: Anna Wintour

St Paul’s Girls School: Alexandra Shulman

Strathallan: Philip Colbert

Withington Girls School:Sarah Burton (creative director Alexander McQueen; designed The Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress)



About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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2 Comments on "Fashion – the smart choice for schools"

  1. Olivia de Courcy May 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm · Reply

    ‘A smart choice’ – something I cannot express enough to dubious minds having studied A-Level design myself. Now studying English at university, I was initially worried that it would hinder my chances having done a less academic subject. But, being a creative person it was the perfect A Level to take for a change from writing essays for my other subjects (English and History), and the chance to do something practical. Perhaps the most pressurised, time consuming subject I’ve taken, the reward is far greater than I could imagine. Not only is hard work rewarded with praise and eventually grades but also seeing your garment(s) on mannequins at the end of year exhibition feels like such an achievement. Also, the skills I learnt through having to manage a whole process, the precision needed in creating my own pattern and presentation skills is something that I will take forward in my future career. Although choosing not to take the path of all other students in my class (they all applied for higher education in the creative arts), my understanding of the craftsmanship needed for when writing catwalk reports from London Fashion Week for my university magazine meant I felt much more knowledgeable.

    I hope readers will see the benefits of studying fashion at school, and how the actual work needed behind the title ‘fashion’, which on the surface may be considered as some to be a weak subject, may encourage the development of valuable skills. If I had my time again, Product Design would be the A Level at the top of my list.

    • Victoria Lambert May 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm · Reply

      I agree. Practical subjects can be just as useful as more ‘academic’ subjects – especially if taught well. And if you want to go into journalism – far more useful than media studies if you bring additional expertise into a busy newsroom.

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