Imperious at one corner of the 200-acre Ditton Park near Slough, Berkshire, stands Computer Associates' European headquarters. The three-storey glass building surrounded by a moat is pretty much what you would expect from the world's fourth-largest computer company. Passing through the security barriers, I'm overcome with a sense of awe and a nagging feeling that I'm in the wrong job. Imagine the effect this scene would have on a group of 10-year-olds - because this is not just the home of CA Europe, it's also the European home of Digital School House.
There are three Digital School Houses in the US (in Washington, New York and Illinois). This is the first in Europe, and it underlines Computer Associates' desire to "give something back" - a high-tech work space for children to come and experience life in a business environment.
Access to Digital School House is available to any Year 6 pupil in a state school in a 20-mile radius of Ditton Park, and although CA does like to seek out the most under-resourced schools in the area, no preference is given on this basis. Sessions run from 10am until 2pm, and include lunch and transport to and from CA's HQ in the impressively branded Digital School House bus. The "school house" itself can take up to 30 children, each with their own PC terminal, giving access to resources that most primary schools would be unable to afford.
When you register with Digital School House, you choose from a list of workshops based around developing either a PowerPoint presentation or designing a website in your chosen subject area. All the workshops are curriculum-based, ranging from Animal Adaptations to Victorian Children, and relate to key areas across key stage 2.
CA has partnered with Langley Grammar School, a local maths and ICT specialist school, which advises the company on developing the sessions in line with the UK curriculum. Digital School House has one main teacher, Hazel Monk, who is funded by part of the money Langley Grammar receives from the Specialist Schools Trust.
It was Hazel's job to "translate" the American worksheets to fit the UK curriculum when CA decided to bring Digital School House to the UK. "This is an ongoing process," she explains. "We're always taking advice from visiting teachers on other areas to look at, and we will, if necessary, adapt worksheets to fit a school's requirements."
Although the worksheets provide the core of the sessions, it's the ICT that's most impressive. The forces (the push and pull variety) workshop I attended was broken down into two sections, which Hazel related to two areas of the web design business process: creating and researching content, and layout and design.
Facing the web design challenge
The worksheets for the web design challenge pose the children a series of questions related to forces and Hazel guides them through the process of connecting to the internet and directs them to a website (www.zephyrus.co.ukwelcometophsysics.html) where they can do their research. They are given up to four topics (What is a force?; Measuring forces; Balanced and unbalanced forces; and Gravity, friction, air resistance or up-thrust) to investigate and write up in their own words.
Hazel also explains copyright and why they aren't allowed to simply cut and paste into their Word document.
The children then go off pretty much at their own pace. At intervals Hazel breaks in to explain some of the more difficult topics in more detail. "The worksheets are set out to ensure there's plenty to challenge the brightest, but allow even the slowest to get something done," she says.
About an hour is dedicated to research. Next, Hazel switches her focus to design, showing the class how to right-click to download pictures to their PCs. Then it's on to layout. She talks the children through dividing up their page to create an interesting layout, incorporating headings, text and pictures. Although she suggests some basic ideas, the children are given a creative free rein.
Once this is done and the children have sketched out their ideas on paper, she explains how to create tables in Word, how to add pictures and change the type size and colour, and create coloured backgrounds. Most importantly, Hazel explains in depth how to use hyperlinks and insert them into their web pages. "We cover hyperlinks, fonts, bookmarks and spellcheck, which are curriculum specific," says Hazel. "The table stuff is something a little extra. The aim is for everyone to complete the project so they have something to take away."
Exploring the use of IT in context
By the end of the workshop, all the children have something to share with the class. Then it's time to get their certificates and T-shirts. But it doesn't end here. The web pages are uploaded to the Digital School House site, where they can be accessed when the children return to their schools.
"The children clearly enjoyed themselves. You can feel the sense of purpose and see the focus on their faces as you walk around the room,"
says Scott Taylor-Hall from Saint Anthony's School in Slough. "Individual needs vary widely across the class, but you can see Hazel has a finger on the pulse. Her combination of technical expertise and skill as a teacher blend well to ensure that the educational and developmental needs of the children are being met. I am proud of what the children have achieved today but, more importantly, so are they."
During the course of the day you can see that the children respond well to being treated like adults. "It's a great experience for them to see IT being used in context," says Hazel. "We're bringing business levels of IT to kids who don't have it, and all the software we use is what they have at school."
From the teachers' response forms I read, teachers love the way the workshops back up their work with ICT and their chosen workshop subject area, and they feel it's fantastic for the children to be able to use computers on a one-to-one basis. Above all, they like the uninterrupted time the children have to complete a project in one session. Most say they use their websites to continue the work at school.
But the last words should go to pupils from Saint Anthony's School, who were there during my visit: "In the Digital School House we got the feeling of a working adult. I think that going to businesses is fun and very educational" (James); "I enjoyed designing a web page for the internet because I haven't done it before and I learned a lot more about computers and how to set things out" (Sonia).
* Computer Associates is planning an event on May 3 to raise funds and awareness, and to encourage others to take on the model and spread facilities across the country. www.digitalschoolhouse.org