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Back the right horses for your courses

Roger Frost stresses the importance of choosing the best programs for your needs, and remembers some old favourites

If you ask why children should use computers in schools you can get a lot of answers. They say it's to develop information technology capability or to enhance other subjects. They say it'll help them at work or because IT is important. They say lots of things.

It's like those other questions that generate lots of no-right answers: what is education for, what's the best way to teach, or what's the meaning of MS-Dos? But with computers, the answer is important. It helps us to choose tools from the range of school and office software.

When you're looking for handling software, there is Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro and others - which can store, process and retrieve information and are much used in business. So if the idea is to prepare students for work, these are the ones to run with.

But handling data in a school subject, is a different need. It might be to draw a graph, or find a pattern or whatever a nine-year-old must do. While the same business program might do fine, it has to pass these new tests.

Take, for example, the data handling program Counting Pictures. It draws pictograms, bar charts, and sorts a list so easily it's ideal for infant maths and science. Pupils who can't even do numbers can be doing with this. They quickly grow on to Counter and use it to record results and choose the graph to represent them. Later still, they might use Counter Plus which lets them handle more data sets and more graphs at once.

What makes these excellent isn't just the seamless progress pupils make from one to the other, or that they're part of one package, or that they develop skills found in more muscular software, it's that they fulfil a curriculum need.

This software isn't the work of any business giant matching industry tools to education, it's the work of Welsh software house, BlackCat. Director Simon Barrett, a former advisory teacher, feels that success demands focus on education. "You have to look at what children need to be able to do. People try to hone a piece of industry software down to the classroom, when it really needs to be designed from classroom up," he says.

Acorn users are no strangers to this idea as so much of their software is embedded in education. Even Simon Barrett, who targets Windows PCs and the lowly Nimbus PC186, can find time to laud the progression through Longman's Pinpoint range.

When you're choosing word processing programs, the need for text editing, formatting and added graphics is easily meet. But packages like Writer's Toolkit from the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, which helps pupils develop their writing, are easily missed. With this they choose whether they will write a story, a letter or a science report, and are hand-held as they think through the purpose of their work. They'll find aids to writing dialogues, developing characters, and putting flesh on their ideas in a "plot maker". Writer's Toolkit offers the youngest writers, and those who are keyboard-struck in front of a blank screen, a secure structure to work from. It's been SCET's major success.

No one confirms the rumour that a US outlet sent a copy to Joan Collins, but apocryphal or not, it hints of a tool to help writing and meet school needs. Looking at conventional word processors, it's interesting to put BlackCat's WriteAway beside Microsoft Word, the 85 per cent of the market giant and last word on the subject. There's little Microsoft's offering cannot do, it marks misspelled words as fast as you type them, has a fluorescent highlighter, and more buttons than an aeroplane cockpit.

WriteAway looks similar if spartan beside it, but there are extras. There's a notepad for jotting off-page ideas and, unusually, a spell checker which not only makes sense of "wot" and "woz" but will store the problem word in a handy word book. There's a writing planner, where pupils type in headings and subheadings, and drag them into order.

Teachers will find a section that measures how children use it, while young writers will find the easiest, sweetest dialogue boxes which use sliders to change the type size. By allowing you to use it at different levels, switching on its harder dialogue boxes, WriteAway has progression written all over it.

Unusually, CD-Rom software divides between home and school rather than office and school. From the thousands of titles that you might disc jockey through, only handfuls are produced expressly for school. Some will find a place in the library and some, including Hampshire's Exploring Nature, are targeted at the tiny market niche of the classroom.

Exploring Nature puts you in a study with reference books to browse, a computer to write with and a phone to "call" for help. You can pop into the garden or go to the wood and as on the field trip that this is excellent preparation for, you can take photos, measurements and creatures back to the classroom. At a price of nigh on Pounds 100, without movie, sound, or designer-looks, no parent would buy it. But in school it fills a vacuum of models pupils can explore.

With resources like these, there's no space for a right answer to that impossible question, we'd miss too much of what's good. As Simon Barrett concludes: "For years there's been this mantra that children should use industry-standard software, when what children need is software they can use creatively, that leads them on to that." Maybe that's something of a compromise.

* BlackCat Educational Software, The Barn, Cwm Camlais, Brecon, Powys, LD3 8TD. Tel: 01874 636835

Hampshire Microtechnology Centre, Connaught Lane, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, PO6 4SJ. Tel: 01705 378266

Scottish Council for Educational Technology, 74 Victoria Crescent Road, Dowanhill, Glasgow G12 9JN. Tel: 0141 337 5000

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