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Online bus trip

An interactive package has pupils in a Middlesbrough school buzzing with enthusiasm. Kevin Berry reports.

It's magic, say the children at Newham Bridge Primary School.

Their teachers are just as enthusiastic. They are talking about The Big Bus, an online resource used throughout the school, in almost all areas of the curriculum. "The Big Bus gives them independence as learners," says advanced skills teacher Pat Duncan.

Foundation years teacher Nicola Jones agrees. She appreciates the variety of activities: "It fits into basic mouse control, comparative language, counting and shape. There's a lovely spelling game. If you're not a very good auditory learner then you've got the visual and the kinesthetic because you can touch it and make it work".

In Newham Bridge Primary School, in Acklam, Middlesbrough, class sizes were increased, quite comfortably, to free a room for a computer suite. For Newham teachers, The Big Bus is now an essential tool; for the children, something more than a favourite book or TV programme.

ICT co-ordinator Andrea Howley chose the package last year because she was charmed by Bo Bear, the principal on-screen character in games designed for early years children. "The Big Bus is simple to use," she says. "The package is under-priced and one of its limitations is that there is little to choose from. The science does need building on." Andrea Howley uses an interactive smart whiteboard for class sessions with The Big Bus. When Bo Bear appears, there are squeals of delight.

In the computer suite, Pat Duncan's Year 45 class is working through an activity called Newspaper Office. There is a mystery to solve and they will be identifying homophones and antonyms. "There is no failing," Pat explains. "The beauty of the program is that if they're doing the exercise wrong there are ways in the program to tell them. Then they can go back and have another go."

There is a hum of concentration in the suite. In 20 minutes, just three hands go up asking for assistance. "They're focused," Pat comments. "If I had given them a paper-and-pencil exercise they would have lost interest by now."

"It's fun and you learn a lot," says 10-year-old Dean Biewer. He clearly would rather continue with the activity than answer my questions. Some of his classmates say the activity is slow.

Pat Duncan is keen for children to have some historical perspective on the changes they are experiencing: "A few years ago we had blackboards and chalk, then writing whiteboards and now an interactive whiteboard. I've told them they will be able to astonish their own children with how they used to work. I compare them with Victorian children moving from writing on slates to writing in books."

Deputy head Ian Walker tells of gratifying progress with a struggling maths group after using Times Tables, an activity based on a racing circuit.

Children choose a vehicle to be matched against the computer's racing car and the speed of the questions is determined by the vehicle chosen. I opted for a lawn mower and still lost. "They like being in control and they like the challenge," says Ian. "They don't need me hovering over them." He suggests that teachers should look over a program first, however easy it might look.

Sometimes technology doesn't work out the way it is intended. For example, in the corridor outside the foundation years classroom is a portable interactive board, covered with protective paper. Why? Nicola Jones frowns.

There are too many safety and time issues associated with a portable screen, she says, such as trailing wires and finding plug points.

"Sometimes the children get out of the programs I've set and put on something else," she adds. "I admire that because it shows their skills.

And some deliberately go for a wrong answer to hear what Bo Bear will say.

Nothing wrong with that."

The Big Bus also attracts adult passengers. Newham Bridge, like many schools in the Middlesbrough area, has introductory computer classes for parents. Occasionally, their children are allowed to sit with them for a keyboard session, and a Big Bus activity is invariably on the screen.

Parents John and Tracy Beals have five-year-old daughter Jade with them.

She is busy with the Terry the Tug game and is filling the tug's barges with the required number of animal passengers. "There was nothing like this when we were at school," says John Beals. "We get to see what Jade does and that's good. And yes, we know all about Bo Bear."

The Big Bus is available online and on CD and is updated termly. It covers the foundation stage and key stages 1 and 2. The activities could, at first glance, seem simple but they are sufficiently demanding. However, follow-up activities need to be developed.

Key stage 2 teachers at Newham Bridge all use the service. Their advice is: let them get on with it, but first try the activities yourself. Some science work, especially when dealing with parameters, might need teacher intervention. Interactive whiteboards are essential to make full use of an online service. Positioning needs careful thought. Younger groups will usually sit in front so the board should be quite low. And teachers should be there when technicians install things. In Andrea Howley's class, the internet points were originally positioned over one side of the classroom and the projector was not aligned to her interactive board. The ideal for older children is to have the smart board in a central position and a writing whiteboard, of a similar size, to one side - J"it helps with brainstorming".

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