Reading standards at a clutch of inner-city schools have risen dramatically over the past two years. Computers have been central to the improvement, reports Maureen McTaggart
Drew primary school, housed in a grim, Victorian red-brick building, is bordered on one side by London's Royal Docks and on the other by City Airport. Its surroundings scream social deprivation, but this is one picture that, its staff hope, tells a different story. Outside, time might have stood still, but inside the school the new technology era has well and truly dawned.
For more than a year, 28 eight and nine-year-olds have been taking part in an innovative project designed to improve their literacy and numeracy skills and reverse the trend of poor results and low expectations associated with inner-city areas.
The children at Drew, in Newham, and their counterparts at 14 other east London schools have been using Pounds 200 handheld computers designed to encourage parental involvement and motivate the pupils to learn.
Each participating school in the Docklands Learning Acceleration Project receives 35 Acorn Pocket Book palmtop computers (better known outside schools as the Psion Series 3, a sort of electronic Filofax with professional facilities), which the children start using at the age of seven to develop stories and poems. Any fine-tuning is done at home, and completed work is downloaded to desktop computers and printed at school.
A total of 600 pupils have been involved in the project, which has cost Pounds 1 million since it was launched in 1995. It is run by the National Literacy Association, a lobby group that is backed by the teaching unions, the Campaign for State Education and the British Dyslexia Association.
The scheme was spurred on by last year's damning report from the Office for Standards in Education which heavily criticised reading standards in two of the boroughs involved - Tower Hamlets and Southwark. The report found that many of the children were two years behind the expected standard by the time they reached secondary school.
Ray Barker, director of the Docklands project, says: "When we looked at the way children worked from the age of five, we discovered they were falling behind by four months every year, so by the time they went to secondary school they would be two years behind in reading.
"We decided that, if we were to change this aspect of the community, we would have to create a literate and numerate workforce, and the best way to achieve this is to improve literacy skills from the earliest age possible."
The main objectives of the project are to double children's rates of acquisition of literacy and raise expectations. Youngsters more used to "beat `em up" computer games than short stories are reading at a significantly higher level since they received their computers, according to the researchers at London University's Institute of Education who are evaluating the project. Of the 15 schools in the project, the number reaching the national reading average rose from one in 1995 to seven in 1996.
The researchers also found that progress in reading was not significantly influenced by poverty (whether a child received free school meals), or ethnic background. Black and other ethnic families achieved similar progress in both spelling and reading to white pupils.
"We seem to have found an equal access to literacy for children because the technology is not judgmental," says Mr Barker.
"People generally come with preconceived ideas of what they expect from children. If they are from an ethnic background they might believe that they will have difficulty with reading and give them an easier book to read. The technology does not have these expectations. Suddenly, there is no excuse for underachieving."
Gender, however, does seem to make a difference. At the beginning of the project, boys and girls were working at similar levels, but by 1996 the girls were making more progress, a trend which has been monitored by Caryn Metzger, class teacher and deputy head at Drew.
"Although technology is generally viewed as a male thing, those most proficient at using the machines, and therefore gaining more, are the girls, " says Ms Metzger, who inherited the Year 4 class and their Pocket Books last year. One boy, however, eight-year-old Robert Dunn, was keen to show me how adept he had become at using the technology. He quickly clicked on his three-"chapter" poem about the sea, then located Georgia on the computer's map, gleefully observing that its football team had recently lost 2-0 to England.
Initially, managing the scheme was a major headache for most of the teachers involved. But help was at hand in the shape of Glen Franklin, assistant co-ordinator of the project, who helped teachers devise lessons and extension work. Because taking the computers home was central to the aim of increasing the link between home and school, teachers were often overwhelmed by children clamouring to download and print their work. A system was needed for allocating the machines.
Methods vary from school to school. Drew, for example, invites parents to sign out the machines as and when they want. Redriff primary, in Southwark, decided to let the children take the Pocket Books home three days a week. Parents had to sign a contract accepting responsibility for the computer, and agreeing to ensure the children would be escorted to and from school on the days the Pocket Book was coming home.
"We decided to send the computers home on a rota basis to make `the morning after' more manageable," says Joanne Lewis, Year 4 teacher at Winsor Primary School, Newham. "Once work has been downloaded it can be shared by a larger group or the whole class later in the day." So far, only six of more than 500 Pocket Books have gone missing.
The success of the scheme is heavily dependent on the commitment of the project teachers; otherwise the computers could simply have become high-tech items sitting in a cupboard because the class teachers lacked the confidence and ability to use them.
Ms Franklin, whose role is to train and maintain teachers' enthusiasm, says that once they recognised the potential of the computers they were all keen to become experts.
Ms Lewis says: "I didn't know much about computers. I had never seen a Pocket Book before, never mind having to deal with 35 in my school."
"From a difficult start, we have seen the real value of them. Their potential is greater than we have yet uncovered, but hopefully they will become as much a part of our classroom equipment as the calculator and the felt-tipped pen. "
From small acorns
Charles Carter, class teacher at Redriff primary in Southwark, used to be inundated with "And then . and then . and then" stories. With the advent of the Pocket Books, his pupils' writing has been enriched. Even those pupils who struggled to write clearly are producing writing of a quality they're proud to show off.
"My less able children began by taking the text of familiar story books and using the edit facilities to change characters, adjectives and events," he says. "This provided scaffolding. The children didn't have to create stories out of thin air. It has helped them to see how stories are constructed. "
Caryn Metzger, class teacher and deputy head at Drew primary, Newham, was sceptical of the computers at first. "I couldn't use them, so I thought they were more trouble than they were worth," she says.
"A year later I can see an improvement in the children's literacy skills. Because they use the spell-check and thesaurus, it leaves me free to work on the content of their work."