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Back to the future

Hugh John visits the oldest primary school in the country and finds a cutting-edge School of the Future

High up near the gabled ceiling in the Year 6 classroom there's a life-size cut-out of a grim, be-gowned headmaster. From his mouth, a speech bubble declares, "We should bring back the cane."

However, the kids seem happy enough and they're clearly enjoying their work. Overseeing activities is deputy head and class teacher Jonathan Bishop. There are computers, and lots of them. In fact, there's a computer for every child in the class, 52 in all. Jonathan has two on his desk as well as a PDA (personal digital assistant). Behind him is a large interactive whiteboard.

Welcome to Broadclyst community primary school, six miles east of Exeter.

State-funded and thought to be the oldest primary in the country, Broadclyst has 311 pupils of all learning abilities. For the last eight years this small village school has pioneered the creative use of ICT, providing students with resources and opportunities that have brought it widespread recognition in the education community. In fact, the school is one of only three in the UK to be given School of the Future status by the National College for School Leadership.

The driving force behind its success is the management team of Peter Hicks and Jonathan Bishop, head and deputy head respectively. Having recognised the potential and significance of ICT, the school set about integrating it within a clear educational framework. Consequently, while technology informs most aspects of school life it shares any easy familiarity with more traditional tools. Plasma screens jostle for wall space with children's paintings and, in the Year 6 classroom, keyboards can be tucked away under a monitor plinth when pupils need to use their writing books.

Two of the key teaching components at Broadclyst are delivered by online resources: Microsoft's Class Server and Educator Online. Class Server is a network system used to set, distribute and collect schoolwork. Projects can be reviewed by pupils, parents and teachers. Additionally, the "Find a Resource" feature enables teachers to source and edit relevant lesson content from either the internet or the school network.

Following the introduction of the HSL Channel (Home School Learning) two years ago, Broadclyst has extended the home school continuum. And with Microsoft's Exchange Server and Curriculum Development Kit technology pupils have direct access to their schoolwork, learning resources and organisational tools at all times.

Peter and Jonathan are quick to emphasise that Broadclyst is founded on well established education principles. "We see ICT as a tool," says Jonathan. "We're very traditional in that the philosophy of education has not changed. We look at the needs of each individual child and endeavour to meet them. ICT is a wonderful tool to enable that."

Assessing and meeting the needs of those pupils is now done with Educator Online, an online assessment service. Essentially, the service links a software-generated set of criteria matched to the national curriculum and an individual teacher's professional judgement.

Based on that evaluation, Educator creates a graph matching performance to "level descriptors" and suggests a range of activities to help a child reach set objectives. Staff have welcomed the new system and assessment times have been cut dramatically. The use of Educator is part of an ongoing commitment at Broadclyst to "free teachers to do what they're good at - teach". Tablet PCs and wireless networking, for instance, allow staff to assess, plan and deliver work in the classroom.

And what of the children? A straw poll of six final year pupils yielded some interesting results. All six realised that they'd had a very special education but were concerned that they might not get the same ICT provision at secondary level. How would they feel, I asked them, if thieves broke into the school and stole all the computers? Chloe reckoned she'd miss, "Age of Empires and stuff we do at lunchtime". Matthew was more forthright.

"Gutted. The whole school thing revolves mainly around computers and it's fun doing work on them." Case closed!

Guidelines for success

* Use technology to extend the learning outside school: Broadclyst's Home School Learning Channel allows children to continue school work at home, and parents to be more personally involved. Children can access schoolwork and email at home

* You can get it if you really want: Peter and Jonathan are adamant that any school can provide the same high level of technology for students.

Broadclyst has a leasing scheme with Sony and Fujitsu-Siemens to ensure that all students, irrespective of parental income, have a PC at home.

Leasing doesn't tie up large capital sums, and schools can respond quickly to ICT developments

* We're all in this together:

Staff training at Broadclyst emphasises the team aspect of learning. Last summer teachers spent a day on Dartmoor with digital video cameras. Having shot at various locations they returned to school for a day of digital editing. Training and learning is peer-to-peer

* Lighten the workload:

"We've worked very hard to cut teacher workloads by using ICT," says Jonathan. Tablet PCs allow for "on the fly" assessments in the classroom, for example

* There has to be a purpose:

When there's a purpose to learning new skills, people will do it. Jonathan estimates that Educator, as well as cutting down on teachers' paperwork by 20 per cent, stimulates teachers to discuss assessments among themselves


* Broadclyst community primary school

* Microsoft Education

* The Educator Online Assessments

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