It's not unusual to find pupils in the Year 4 class at St Cuthbert's primary school in New Seaham, County Durham, casually wandering over to have a chat with a friend. Isn't this just a little too relaxed? Has teacher Teri Eadsforth lost control of her charges?
Far from it. Pupils are not just indulging in idle conversations, but actually discussing aspects of their work. Impressed? Surprised? Well St Cuthbert's Year 4 is no average class. In fact, a fundamental change has taken place in the way in which the 27 8 and 9-year-olds learn. The revolution can be attributed to the arrival of 30 laptop computers at the school about a year ago. The machines were funded by the Easington and Seaham education action zone of which St Cuthbert's is a part.
The school wanted to use laptops to help develop all aspects of writing across the curriculum and incorporate graphics into pupils' work. The zone managers liked the proposal and made St Cuthbert's one of five Laptop Innovation schools, as well as an ICT Lighthouse Leader.
Pupils have their own laptops, which can be taken home as well as used in the classroom. Eadsforth thought the computers and the interactive whiteboard used for whole-class teaching would have a significant impact on her teaching, but was less prepared for just how well the pupils have adapted to their introduction. She says the children very quickly became effective independent learners as well as able to work in groups and help others when necessary.
Most writing is now done on the laptops and, according to Eadsforth, all the pupils are benefiting, particularly one dyslexic boy who now produces much better work.
"They all love the computers," she says, "and are very enthusiastic right from the lowest to the highest ability."
Eadsforth, who has been nominated for Teacher of the Year in the primary category, recently added an Apple iMac and digital video camera to her ICT arsenal. They allow pupils to make live-action as well as animated movies based around the curriculum and have further heightened the children's interest in technology and their work.
Like those at the nine other primaries in the action zone, pupils at St Cuthberts participate in a Digital Excellence Awards scheme. John Ingram, the zone's ICT director, says the initiative is a key part of its drive to ensure world-class digital literacy.
There are 13 awards, with silver badges for key stage 1 and gold for key stage 2. They cover a range of basic competencies, such as using a digital camera or scanner and email. To earn the badge, pupils must gain a range of skills that have been mapped to the ICT national curriculum. Ingram says that KS1 pupils are able to try for a gold badge after earning the silver if they want to, and many are choosing to do so. These high achievers then go on to tutor their peers.
Progress is monitored by the Pupil ICT Assessment Profile (Pictap). The aim is that, by next year, a random group of KS1 and KS2 children will score significantly higher on Pictap than a sample group of students from countries, including Singapore and the United States.
In addition to giving a St Cuthbert's class a set of laptops, some 200 others have been purchased by the zone for a number of pilot projects. In one, a group of Year 4 and 5 pupils have been hot-housed by teachers to become "digital experts" so they can help younger children master computer tasks. Teaching students from Durham University have also been involved in the project.
The zone has also found summer schools to be a useful way to rapidly improve pupils' ICT capabilities. In a fortnight, says Ingram, 48 children from Years 1 to 5 gained a total of 640 silver and gold Digital Excellence awards and were found to be between 12 and 18 months ahead of the pace of learning expected for their age in the ICT national curriculum.
In a bid to see ICT used in more innovative ways, the zone has a programme called TREES to encourage schools to aim for a technology-rich educational environment. There are a number of other projects being tested in the zone, such as parent ICT clubs and breakfast ICT clubs for pupils. All the activities are intended to help the areas covered by the education action zone increase pupil achievement and ensure children become digitally literate and ready for a world where ICT skills are not optional.
In the long term, the hope is that such a strategy will help reverse the poverty and deprivation experienced in many parts of Easington and Seaham.
* The area
St Cuthbert's school is located in one of the most deprived areas of the country.
As a result of becoming part of the Easington and Seaham Education Action Zone, St Cuthbert's pupils
* Were able to achieve Gold Level awards in ICT by the end of year 4, whereas normally they would not be expected to achieve this standard before the end of year 6 or 7.
* Became Digital Peer Tutors, meaning they now teach other children and lead the ICTlearning in class, taking pressure off teachers.
* Were able to decide where, when and how to use ICT within other subjects, such as using the internet to surf for information. They are also now able to put together presentations for projects using all aspects of Microsoft Office, such as spreadsheets, and PowerPoint.
* Have improved their communication skills as they are now able to collaborate and make decisions on projects.
* The zone
Education action zones are set up by the Government in response to applications from groups of schools in socially deprived areas of the country. Applicant schools have to convince the Department for Education and Skills that they can meet the demanding targets for improvement in the education standards of their children. Success brings a pound;500,000 grant plus a further pound;250,000 to match a similar sum raised privately by schools.