Literacy" and "basic skills" are certainly buzz words at the moment. In government circles and beyond, it is not difficult to find someone, even the Prime Minister, who believes UK schools have problems in these areas.
Trying to get anyone to define what they mean by "literacy" is hard enough. At the London Docklands Development Corporation, however, they have a functional view of the problem.
Too many children living in the LDDC area leave school unable to take jobs in new industries on their own doorstep because they have inadequate skills in written English and basic maths. To try to alleviate these problems there have been remedial projects to tackle "basic skills" development in young adults. However, the latest initiative, in association with the National Literacy Association, is attempting to address the problem before it arises by targeting year 3 pupils in the primary schools within the LDDC area.
The result is the National Literacy Association Docklands learning acceleration project, directed by Ray Barker at the Urban Learning Foundation. This is an ambitious project with an Pounds 800,000 budget. Its aims are to at least double the present rates of acquiring literacy skills across the ability range. It also aims to increase motivation, time on task and co-operative classroom behaviour; improve school attendance rates; foster parentalcommunity involvement in support of literacy and related IT-based communication skills; and enable teachers to make constructive use of the resources provided.
This last point could be the key to the success or failure of the entire project. The schools have been provided with either a set of palmtop computers and a selection of software related to basic skill development for their desktop computers or an integrated learning system (ILS). The project describes an ILS as "a multimedia computer-based programme of structured learning and assessment".
The basic premise of an ILS is that pupils work alone, allowing the software to log their performance and provide the teacher with feedback on individual progress. However, American research found that where language development is concerned, pupils did better working in pairs.
Ray Barker is keen to stress that this is not a research project, or an IT project. It is about finding effective strategies to enable teachers to facilitate gains in basic skills. He sees as vital the way in which teachers integrate the resources the project provides into the rest of their classroom work. The staff training the project offers will focus on this aspect rather than simply the management of hardware and software. As well as the computer-based components of the project there are sponsored reading corners, and special contributions on poetry and book-making, for example.
The decision to invest in an integrated learning system as a major part of the project was prompted by reports of learning gains in schools in the United States. The project invited tenders from UK-based suppliers of both American and British-generated products, but finally decided on the British product. This was a brave decision since this system has yet to prove its effectiveness in independent UK trials, as shown in the NCET evaluation report published in 1994.
Publicity material released by the Docklands project refers to 20-month gains in maths using an ILS, but in the independent evaluation of learning outcomes carried out by the University of Leicester for the NCET these gains were shown by pupils using the American SuccessMaker system, not the UK Global system the project is using. In fact, Leicester found no gains among pupils using the Global system in the first phase of the evaluation.
The LDDC area encompasses parts of the London boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Newham. All primary schools in the area were invited to take part in the project and 15 accepted. This involved entering a contract with the project. Schools had to agree to base line testing of the target pupils last term.
They also had to make a financial commitment. For example, schools receiving a 10 work-station network or 30 palmtops had to contribute Pounds 5,000 over two years. This is a fraction of the value of the equipment but a significant sum for a primary school. The schools also had to agree to let staff take part in training provided by project staff, and to give pupils routine access to the ILS resources every week.
The summer term was spent setting up the equipment and providing preliminary support, and classroom work starts in earnest this term. It is too early to comment on children's progress, but the teachers and pupils at St Peter's School, Wapping and Winsor School, Beckton seem happy.
St Peter's has a network with ILS for Year 3. Pupils working together in pairs are finding the software easy to use as they tackle the initial on-screen spelling exercises.
At Winsor school, pupils work together around a palmtop. A cohort of pupils from Year 3 are preparing crib sheets for their classmates. These children are to act as mentors for the rest of the year group and are particularly excited at the prospect of being able to take the small computers home to show to their families.
The project as a whole will be evaluated by a third party, yet to be appointed. This report is likely to provide vital information about two very different approaches to the use of technology to support basic skill acquisition. Although it is not intended as a research exercise, the Docklands project may well tell us something about the effectiveness of an ILS compared to other IT applications.
It is not a straightforward comparison, however. The schools with the ILS have used different management models, for example the whole network in one classroom or in a communal area. The schools with the palmtops, and a varied selection of computer-aided learning software, have to work out their own curriculum.
The open-ended nature of the tools they have been given means they will have to work harder to make good use of them, unlike the pre-packaged ILS which offers a plug-in-and-go approach.
It will be difficult to identify exactly why any school has been successful at the end of the project. Great care will need to be taken in extrapolating the outcomes to other schools.
One thing is certain: no matter how successful this project proves, it is extremely unlikely in the current climate that the DFEE would fund a national initiative quite so generously. However, the project might provide some useful pointers for Tony Blair's one computer per child initiative, should the climate change.