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The after-school gang;Cover feature

Masterpieces are created every week in after-school art clubs and playgrounds regularly resound to the thud of rubber against concrete as extra-curricular football and netball games are played out across the country. Yet 30 minutes at the end of the school day is not enough for the 10- and 11-year-olds at Carrington Junior school.

Instead, the after-school activities of this group of Buckinghamshire pupils often continue into the late evening. They belong to an email club, the brainchild of science teacher Angela Fenner. Once a week, members of the club meet to plan how to tackle the latest challenge set by Fenner. Club members contact each other by email using facilities at home or at school. They are encouraged to research their answers using reference books and the Internet and email them to Fenner in time for the next meeting.

"When all the challenges are completed the students write a poem collaboratively. Each child writes one line and forwards it to the others in the club to continue. At the end of each term the poem is displayed for the rest of the school to see. The idea is to get them up to speed with their email skills," says Fenner.

Fenner is no nerdy technology boffin. In fact, she only realised the educational potential of email and the Internet thanks to the Department for Education and Employment's Multimedia Portables for Teachers initiative in 1998. After the initiative introduced her to multimedia portable computers and software last year, Fenner became so adept at using email she relieved the burden on the school secretary by designing and writing her own parents' letters. "I have gained the most benefit from having this facility on my laptop," she says. "That and the classroom use have been the biggest boon to me. It has eased my workload in that I can work in my own time."

The pound;23million project supplied some 10,000 teachers and national literacy coordinators - 59 per cent of them head teachers or deputy heads - with portable multimedia computers to examine their impact on teaching, learning and professional development. The project was evaluated by a team from the University of Nottingham's School of Education, which published a report of its findings.

Nearly all the teachers involved became proficient in using the computer and about 93 per cent said they now work more efficiently as a result of the scheme. The portability of the machines encouraged many teachers to take them home to continue school work, devoting much of their own time to learn about the technology and develop their skills.

"It is quicker and easier to redraft and update reports and presentations with the laptop," says Fenner. "It has eased my workload in that I can work in my own time at home. I find it quite tiring to sit at my desk after school, trying to spend the amount of time necessary to catch up on work, especially with the caretaker desperate to get us out by a certain time so he can lock up. It has put me back in control of the things I need to do to keep my skills up."

At the beginning of the project, which was managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology agency (BECTA), teachers were given a three-hour demonstration to familiarise them with the equipment and its capabilities. This included an overview of some CD-Rom titles and a live link-up to the Internet. Throughout the year, support was always on hand either through project partners, BECTA or in some cases from families and friends.

Jan Blemmings is co-ordinator of learning resources at Henry Cort community school, Hampshire, and one of two teachers at the school to receive a laptop. She was desperate to improve her PC competence and saw the scheme as a way of doing so. With her confidence now soaring, she has joined forces with her students to design and build pages for "Henry's Net", the school's website, which gives prospective parents a guided tour of the premises and includes pages of research information and carefully screened links to the World Wide Web.

Each of the 900 11- to 16-year-old pupils and all staff members in the comprehensive now have their own email addresses. But Blemmings stresses that having the laptops in the school has not moved it from poor practice to super practice.

"We were already familiar with the educational potential of computers and the Internet, but were interested in trying to maintain and improve on what we already had," she says. "Having the machines has not meant that I have been in touch with lots of other teachers. I am now, however, trying to foster links with schools abroad."

Many of the teachers presented with the multimedia portables were not experienced or confident users of ICT; one 30-year veteran said that she was increasingly embarrassed by her ICT ignorance and children's expertise. However, a year later, 84 per cent of them happily log on to the Internet to search for resources or share ideas with colleagues in other schools, and 86 per cent have published their own website.

According to BECTA's report, Internet access is considered essential by most people in the project. This is borne out by the fact that 46 per cent of the participants in the pilot submitted their interim questionnaire and report over the Internet using a form on the project's website.

As Paul Fielon, Henry Cort community school's deputy head, readily admits:

"We have become quite reliant on these machines and although I sometimes lend mine to colleagues I find that I always really need and want it back quickly."

Project website. Henry's Net.

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