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Never too late for 'The Learn';Private study;Education

Cover lessons are a thing of the past when pupils can go to easily supervised Learn Centres. Phil Revell on asystem with hidden bonuses

It's Tuesday morning and the cover list at the Beacon Community College in East Sussex is being prepared. It doesn't take long because, unlike most schools, Beacon needs little cover. This is thanks to the school's computer suites - Learn Centres - where children can go for individually focused education when their teachers are absent.

"A bete noire of mine for years has been the wasted curriculum time of cover lessons," says Beacon's principal, Alison Banks. "Seeing the frustration of colleagues losing their free time to cover a class, often when they needed it for marking and preparation, made me envy the French system of surveillants." So Alison has brought the surveillant (supervisor) concept up to date.

The Learn Centres, housing 100 computers, are equipped with a range of software and CD-Roms, plus targeted work written by Beacon staff. Younger children are set tasks, older students can manage their own learning.

At first Beacon's teachers feared that children would misbehave and little work would be done. Alison volunteered to supervise the large groups herself, along with her senior management team. A room was set aside so that students who misbehaved could be set written work. The sin bin has never been used and Learn Centre supervision is such an easy task that colleagues have asked why it needs senior staff.

Alison and her management team have raised the profile of the scheme with students and teachers alike and - most importantly - the college has saved two thirds of its cover budget.

Clearly the computers have uses beyond cover. Eighteen months ago the college was concerned about the low reading ages of the new Year 7. So pupils were put on a rota to use the Global English program for half an hour each morning before school. "We have demonstrated huge gains in spelling and reading," says English teacher Marie Waller. "And the students say it's cool." Attendance has been voluntary and enthusiastic and the results, according to the college, have been astonishing. "Average reading age gain has been 11.6 months from a five-week course," says Marie. "Some students with a reading age of eight or nine years have gained 17 to 18 months."

Beacon uses the Systems Integrated Research (SIR) Global software. "This offers marking, recording and tracking of students' work," says Adrian Evans, the Learn Centre manager, "with print-outs for teachers on individual and class performance." But increasingly teachers set students tasks based on CD-Rom materials and the Internet.

Adrian Evans co-wrote the software that controls intranet and Internet access and addresses many of the teachers' worries about allowing children free access to computers. The Learn Centres use Windows 95, but students can't tamper with desktop settings and have no access to the main drive.

They have their own space where they save material. "This is a huge bonus for students," says Adrian. "It's impossible to lose their work by saving it in the wrong directory." Illegal games can be banned and students who try to by-pass the security can be identified and barred from the network."

Undesirable Internet sites are blocked, and Adrian and his two technicians do a regular check on sites visited by students, to weed out new nasties.

Use of e-mail has taken off, with 5,000 mails per week leaving the site and peaks of 200 mails a minute at morning breaks, when students use it as an internal mail. Students are automatically charged 1p a minute for their free-time use of the system. Students can reload their account through the college accounting system and teachers can reward students with penny points - a modern alternative to the house point.

The approach gives children as much control as possible. "Many well-funded research projects are based on small groups of children sending e-mails to partner schools abroad under the direction of a teacher," says Alison Banks. "But this removes all the potential for independence of learning which we were seeking at Beacon."

And that independence is obvious. The college has several interactive, online magazines, an online inhouse radio station, a cybercafe - demand for the system at break and lunchtime is so strong that access is rationed. Pupils use swipecards to log on.

Beacon has dealt with boys hogging the machines by levelling the playing field. Equal access is guaranteed because once half the machines are occupied by the lads, only girls' cards are accepted.

Alison Banks is convinced that using the technology is feeding back into pupil achievement. "We have a lot of evidence to suggest that boys' work effort, their street cred and therefore pride in standards of achievement and presentation increase dramatically when using computers in an independent learning environment."

Two years ago Beacon was criticised by the Office for Standards in Education for weaknesses in ICT. Computer:student ratios were 1:18 and the machines were mainly ancient BBCs or Acorns.

The Learn Centres idea emerged after a visit to the independent learning centres at Blackburn College of Further Education. Funding has come from savings from the budget, helped by the success of the centres in replacing cover lessons - and from aggressive chasing of outside funding. The college has received money from the Department of Trade and Industry to develop links with business, Prince's Trust cash for out-of-school clubs and company sponsorship.

A new phrase has entered the college vocabulary. A boy running down the corridor apologises: "Sorry," he says, "I'm late for The Learn."

Beacon Community College, Crowborough, East Sussex; 01892 603000 Windows Ranger (network management and security) and Web Ranger (Internet access and security) are marketed by Clifton Reed Ltd. Contact Marie Palmer 01932 231433

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