Mark Whitehead files a progress report.
Working at the computer screen is second nature to the students at Dixons City Technology College in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Walk into the impressive purpose-built school in the heart of the inner city and you can see groups of children huddled round a screen working together on their latest projects or beavering away on an assignment of their own. The college is equipped with around 200 computers linked in an integrated open-access system: information technology is used across the whole curriculum and for all the administration. Students can log in to any computer at any time to complete their homework or chase up an inquiry. They can send e-mail messages to teachers or to other students. Most lessons involve working on screen at least part of the time.
"Most of our kids wouldn't dream of handing in a piece of work on paper unless it was requested," says Phil McLear, systems manager at Dixons CTC. "If the teacher says they're not happy with something, they can go back and change it easily. Pencils and paper are very much second best."
Dixons CTC, named after its main sponsor, the high-street electrical retailer, is one of 15 city technology colleges set up between 1988 and 1993 to provide specialist education for young people with an aptitude for technological subjects. At a cost of Pounds 150 million, Pounds 40 million of which came from industrial backers, the CTCs were intended to act as "beacons of excellence" for other schools.
A later generation of technology colleges - state schools developed as specialist centres after successfully raising Pounds 100,000 each from private sponsorship matched out of government funds - were also aimed at promoting the latest in IT. There are now 180 around the country, and the total is rising.
It is difficult to measure overall IT skills, but as an example of what is being achieved, at Bradford, 140 of the 160 pupils eligible took GCSE information systems last year; of those, 96 per cent gained the top three grades.
At Brooke Weston CTC in Corby, Northants, the integrated open-access system means students are involved in one of the most advanced computerised "smart card" systems in the country. Every student carries a card which is used for everything from gaining admission to the college to paying for lunches. It has to be "swiped" through a special machine at the college entrance in the morning, instantly registering the student's exact time of arrival. "It has dramatically cut the amount of time we have to spend on administration, so that more can be devoted to learning," says Gareth Newman, the college principal .
All students at Corby spend two-and-a-half hours a week learning about the latest IT developments through a new technologies course. "We see technology very much as a tool," says Gareth Newman. "We like to think that we are empowering the kids by giving them the ability to manage all the software available."
At the Hugh Christie technology school in Tonbridge, Kent, pupils are also involved in a wide range of innovative activity. "Some of the things we've read about the school of the future are already beginning to happen here," says Richard Wallis, the deputy headteacher.
One problem faced by staff was that many new pupils were up to two years behind in basic English and maths. So the school introduced the latest computerised integrated learning system. Now every pupil in their first year spends about half an hour every day at a screen using the SuccessMaker package to ensure they are up to scratch. The system provides every pupil with a personalised learning programme, identifying weaknesses and giving individual exercises to improve them.
Several older students at Hugh Christie, which became a technology college three years ago, are using some of the latest distance-learning techniques. Instead of taking lessons in the classroom face-to-face with a teacher, around a dozen pupils receive tuition in electronics, accounting and psychology down the telephone line and on to a screen from the Gwynedd Technology Centre in north Wales.
And another group of students is in the process of setting up its own home pages on the Internet which can be used to conduct debates on important issues of our times.
"We have a global economy and the future is knowledge-based," says Richard Wallis. "The youngsters need to be IT-literate because, without it, their future will be very poor indeed. Our role as a technology college is to experiment and lead the way. We're trying to re-engineer schools for the thirdmillennium."
Principals and staff at the CTCs and technology schools are determined not to be seen as exclusive or elitist. They take pride in their all-ability comprehensive intakes. They readily acknowledge that there is a huge amount of excellent work being done in other non-specialist schools, and they are anxious to share their resources with their local communities. This is something that Labour has said it is keen to encourage if it wins power.
But Eve Gillmon, development director at the Technology Colleges Trust, the umbrella body for CTCs and technology schools, is in no doubt about the progress being made. "All the schools and colleges are very different in terms of what they are doing, but they all use IT in all subject areas so that pupils have access to enormous learning resources," she says.
"We have started to change the way we teach and children are gaining more control of their own learning. It's all about them having the communication skills to access the resources.
"You can teach them how to use software, but if you don't have access to the vast range of resources that IT is capable of providing there isn't a great deal of point.
"They are being educated to live in the future, not only to be able to use the technology but to become autonomous learners, instead of being dependent on what is served to them by teachers and books."