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Curriculum - Pens down, camera up, look ahead

Budget cuts are hitting ICT where it hurts, but there is more room to do great things with technology and tech-savvy pupils - and at a relatively low cost

Budget cuts are hitting ICT where it hurts, but there is more room to do great things with technology and tech-savvy pupils - and at a relatively low cost

It is a forlorn hope that ICT might prove to be a "special case" when it comes to the swingeing budget cuts facing schools.

According to the latest annual survey of state schools' ICT spending by the British Educational Suppliers' Association (Besa), a typical primary school budget in the UK is anticipated to be pound;13,380 in 2010-11, 4.4 per cent less than the current school year. Secondary budgets, meanwhile, are to decrease to an average of pound;62,970 (2.7 per cent less than the current year).

Yet as pupils become more tech-savvy, and the case for using more technology to deliver the curriculum gets stronger, how can schools best direct their investments? A number are finding that there is still room to do great things with ICT at a relatively low cost. One way is to capitalise on the technology that many children already possess.

A recent study of primary pupils' attitudes to ICT in the classroom by the Institute of Education, University of London, revealed that most would like to use their own devices in school.

More than half of the seven to 11-year-olds in the study, funded by government technology agency Becta, had their own mobile phone. Nearly 90 per cent had their own games console and more than 20 per cent used social networking sites.

Schools could also follow the example of the Essa Academy in Bolton, which last term issued all pupils and teachers with an iPod Touch.

One area to have suffered particularly badly on the funding front is curriculum software, which covers technology used in lesson delivery (as opposed to the systems that help to run the school).

Besa estimates that primaries will spend 21.5 per cent less on these resources in 2009-10 than 2008-09. Secondary school spending in the same area will decline by 3.4 per cent this year.

For Stephen Lucey, part of the schools team at Becta, there is "a lot of incentive for schools to purchase much more wisely and effectively". He believes this might include making use of centrally negotiated purchasing agreements, such as Becta's new framework agreement for software.

"A centrally negotiated agreement can save schools up to 20 per cent on any expenditure," he explains. But he adds that what schools have available to spend is still significant and there is room for local choice about what technology they feel is most of value.

Another marked trend is away from costly desktop systems and towards more mobile devices. According to Besa, this will mark the biggest drop in schools' spending overall.

It is not all doom and gloom, though, as many devices coming on to the market - together with countless electronic applications and resources - are available at reasonable prices.

Wallace High, a grammar school with a preparatory school attached in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, now has seven Flip video cameras, bought for pound;105 each on Amazon. And David Cleland, ICT co-ordinator, hopes to find money in this year's budget to buy three more. "We definitely want a set of 10 to share between 20 pupils," he says.

The cameras are the size of a chunky mobile phone and operate with a single button, so even young children can record videos, and they can even be used to collect coursework evidence in PE or drama, or filming science experiments.

"It takes minutes to get children using them, as opposed to at least an hour training them to use a camcorder and maybe weeks to get them really comfortable with the technology," says Mr Cleland.

"It's part of my job to choose the technology that will give us the best outcomes for the money we spend and these really have earned their keep: I can't think of a subject area in which we don't use them."

Most recently, they have been used for roleplay in history, on a school skiing trip (the instructor used a Flip in a helmet holder to film pupils' technique and give feedback) and taken home by ICT GCSE pupils to film content for the websites they are creating as part of their coursework. The visitors' TV in the school foyer shows Flip films.

"The focus is on learning in the subject area rather than learning to use the technology. When you give the children a camera there is almost no interruption to workflow," he adds.

The Flip plugs straight into a USB socket to download film instantly. "Staff find them much easier to use than camcorders, and whereas in the past it might have taken an hour to get an hour of film on to a computer from a camcorder, now it takes minutes. They are an example of how you can get very good outcomes from spending a relatively small amount of money."

It is also worth tapping into pupils' appetite for gaming technology. In 2008, Droitwich and Worcester City School Sport Partnership invested in a set of Nintendo Wii consoles for all the secondary schools in the partnership to try to improve opportunities for extra-curricular fitness.

Mike Eaglesfield manages the partnership from the PE department of Droitwich High School. "All students get a minimum of two hours' PE a week and many do much more, and we have a full range of sports clubs," he says.

"The Wii is not intended to be a substitute for this and it is never used in lesson time, but it is part of a supervised lunchtime activity that we can offer to children who might not be attracted to sports clubs."

The school keeps the Wii in the inclusion centre where two or three children can use it at once, and it is accessed by up to 30 pupils each lunchtime. It is also used at the youth club attached to the school.

Pupils are only allowed to play the sports games (bowling, tennis, running) and it encourages good behaviour at lunchtime, according to Mr Eaglesfield, for a relatively small outlay. "We have two at pound;190 each. The second Wii is mainly used for special events and enrichment days," he says.

Gaming also features in Mangahigh, a digital resource for maths, which offers a wide range of online games where pupils can practise mathematical theories they have learnt. Schools can be basic members of the Mangahigh Global Maths Game League for free, which gives them access to all the games, but some are linked to Mangahigh's paid-for Prodigi learning system.

The maths department at Jordanhill School in Glasgow recently took part in Mangahigh trials. Principal teacher Marie-Claire Doherty is using the games two or three times a week with Years 7 and 8 classes and less frequently further up the school "though they can be useful for revision up to fifth year".

Current favourites are Flower Power (percentages, fractions and decimals taught through the life cycle of exotic plants) and Bidmas Blaster (defeat the Roborator with brackets, indices, division, multiplication, addition and subtraction).

"We set them for homework and find that children are highly motivated by the gaming technology, which taps into a culture they are aware of," says Mrs Doherty.

And for those for whom maths is not their best subject, a system of bronze, silver and gold awards, given for how often you play, can be an incentive to practise the games. Furthermore, schools can log on to the system and see who has been playing what, and how long they spent on it.

Some schools have managed to bring in cutting-edge technology with no financial outlay at all. According to Besa, two-thirds of schools make significant use of the internet for free downloads of online curriculum content.

English teachers, for example, can now access a digital literature resource pack called HOTbook, which offers classroom activities for Years 8 and 9. The programme is supported by the Institute for the Future of the Book (if:book) and funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

HOTbook draws on social networking to engage pupils in reading and writing in response to an anthology of poems and extracts from plays, novels and non-fiction texts (including Barack Obama's inauguration speech) presented as short films, Flash animations, podcasts and HTML web pages.

The 40 pieces include classic texts such as Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech, William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger", Chaucer's Prologue from The Canterbury Tales and Shelley's Ozymandias sonnet. There are also contemporary contributions, including poems by Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah and specially commissioned works.

The HOTbook activities are framed within "messages from the future" (the year 3010), where the curator of the museum of the history of the book needs help to select the most significant pieces of writing from the past for display. The curator's non-standard English is another opportunity for pupils to explore how language is developed, and they are encouraged to post comments on them as they would on a social networking site. The project can run in as little as an hour a week.

Ellie Clark, head of English at Queensbridge School in Birmingham, says the role-play aspect of the project attracted her to investing time in piloting it. "We were very pleased with the reading and writing work the activities generated and the pupils were very positive about it, especially boys and lower-ability pupils."

ICT investment is no longer about laying out for a cutting-edge system that takes months to install and few people understand. Smaller, ad hoc investments can also produce amazing results.


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