Digital dialogue

Susan Pape

A school in Yorkshire has gone on-line, with spectacular results. Janet Landini and her schoolfriends had spent part of the morning talking to a group of pupils from another school, comparing notes on uniforms, favourite pop stars, and Saturday jobs.

Not that unusual. But Janet and her friends were in a classroom at The Cathedral School in Wakefield, Yorkshire, while the other pupils were across the North Sea in The Netherlands. In a technological twist to the foreign ex-change visit, the pupils had been video-conferencing via monitors set up in classrooms in the two countries, linked by high-speed dedicated telephone lines.

The Cathedral School dates back to the 11th century, but three years ago this history-soaked establishment was thrust into the 21st century thanks to the visionary planning of its headteacher, Stewart Martin.

Mr Martin was appointed with a brief to change what was then the Cathedral Middle School into an enlarged, modernised Church of England high school for 11 to 16-year-olds, many of them from underprivileged areas of the city. He was given a major say in what facilities would be provided.

"It was the professional chance of a lifetime, when I could put everything I had learned into practice," he says. "I thought seriously about what the children of today needed and what a school of the 21st century would look like, bearing in mind that it was going to be around long after all the staff and children here now had gone."

His main consideration was to equip the children with the aptitude, skills and sense of values to sustain them through periods of change. This required a scheme that would retain the traditional moral and spiritual elements of a church school, but incorporate state-of-the-art technology. "Many adults still think of computers as new-fangled things. But to children they were here when they were born and technology is a part of their lives and will be an important part of their future. The new school had to accept that," Mr Martin says.

As part of the Pounds 7.5 million expansion programme, he insisted that a fibre-optic network backbone be laid around the school, providing a communications infrastructure that now links nearly 100 personal computers, which were supplied by a local company.

With a PC in every room, the system is linked to the Internet and electronic mail. Every pupil learns how to use the technology and is encouraged to use it, accessing millions of pieces of information, word processing, working on spreadsheets, using CD-Roms and devising software.

"People ask me why I am so keen on new technology," says Mr Martin. "If you are just using it for the 'gee whizz' effect then you are wasting your time. I see it as part of our job to turn out people who have the skills and abilities that will help them run this country in the 21st century."

The school uses its video-conferencing facilities to make regular contact with similarly equipped schools in The Netherlands and France. The pupils now have shared lessons with Jean Monnet School near Paris and Bisschop Bekkers in Eindhoven, while a third school, Dr Phillips in Florida (the 12th largest school in the US), is also keen to establish technological links.

Carol Cawkwell, head of languages, says teachers at each school initially make video contact to establish topics for student discussion. "Once the session starts, the children quickly build up a rapport. Being able to see and talk to people from other countries helps break down barriers and prejudices," she says. It's a view that fits in with the ethos of The Cathedral School.

The school also offers its video-conferencing facilities to the local business community, who can contact customers and suppliers in this country and abroad. "Why spend a whole day travelling to London or Brussels for a meeting when you can have a video-conference with people anywhere in Europe, just minutes from your office?" Mr Martin says.

Meanwhile, Janet Landini has just discovered that her counterpart in The Netherlands wears what she likes to school while in Wakefield they must wear uniforms. "It is interesting finding out what they are like," she says. "You couldn't get the same idea by writing or talking on the telephone. Because we can actually see each other, and talk face to face, it makes us feel we are getting to know each other and becoming friends."

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