Penblwydd hapus!" A small, red-haired boy from a remote primary school in North Powys looks excitedly at the words displayed on the screens around him. It's his fifth birthday and the 20 pupils of the reception and infants departments are hard at work on computers, designing him a birthday card. No one has to queue for a machine, but that's not because the school has a rich benefactor. Instead, its staff and pupils are at the Welshpool High School Partnership Centre.
North Powys has always been a county of small village schools. Although the days of tiny schools of under 20 pupils have long gone, some still have under 50 and many have under 100. Delivering the IT curriculum in such schools with limited access to computers is far from easy, which is where the partnership centre comes in.
Since 1996, the centre has been offering IT facilities and training to local primary schools as well as anyone else who wants it. It provides equipment for the national curriculum work of 5 to 11-year-olds and has enough of it for a whole class to work on a project at the same time. Visitors to the centre might also encounter children from the local infant school, some as young as three, designing Easter eggs on the computer screen or a group of Welsh-speaking pupils learning how to program in LOGO or a class of 10-year-olds grappling with Numberbox spreadsheets. And since the centre plays a part in delivering Welshpool High School's IT curriculum, there's also a fair chance a sixth-former will be working on an A-level project.
The partnership centre was inspired by a Massey Ferguson-sponsored venture in Coventry. Stuart Pearce, head of Guilsfield Primary School, north of Welshpool, visited that centre and recognised its potential in a rural area such as North Powys. He contacted Frank Bestwick, deputy head of Welshpool High School, and a steering group was set up. Advice, support and sponsorship came from Massey Ferguson, Powys TEC, the Welsh Office and local electronics company Control Techniques.
Four years later, the centre's facilities are over-subscribed and still developing. Fourteen schools use them on a regular basis and many more contact the centre for technical advice. In addition to schools, local businesses use the centre for training and video-conferencing, a local training agency delivers a National Vocational Qualification in IT from it and Powys Education Authority delivers teacher training from it.
Buttington-Trewern Primary, which has 135 pupils in its nursery, infant and junior departments, has long been an enthusiastic user of the partnership centre. It now has 17 computers of its own, but it still makes good use of the centre. "It's really good for getting a project started," says headteacher Colin Jenkins. "We can bring a class for a group session, thn they carry on back at school."
New projects are always being developed, with particular emphasis on extending the relationship between schools and industry. For example, the partnership centre is acting as the local liaison between primary schools and Powergen on the Weather Station Project. Powergen gives a weather monitoring kit to all schools participating in the project and provides training at the Rheidol power station near Aberystwyth. Armed with this knowledge and equipment, pupils take daily climate readings to create a weather project. Powergen promises to award a satellite-controlled weather station to the school that submits the best project.
Welshpool High School's headteacher, Paul Coackley, remains enthusiastic about the partnership centre. "We work in a rural community, but there is no reason why such a partnership should not be successful in an urban context. We are committed to its future and to its development as a shared resource for all."
Not that the partnership centre is resting on its laurels. The latest initiative is the CADCAM (computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturer) project developed by the high school alongside Powys TEC and Howard Barrett, managing director of Boxford, a supplier of computer numerical control (CNC) CADCAM educational equipment and software. The match-funded project (in which funding is split 50-50 between government money and education authority and private money) saw Boxford supply CADCAM equipment and software to the centre and identical software to the dozen or so participating schools. Boxford engineers trained Mike Jaffrey, manager of the partnership centre, to use the CNC machine and CADCAM software, who in turn trained teaching staff.
Barrett says the company's development manager met headteachers of primary schools expecting to initiate developments to simplify the CAD software. He was pleasantly surprised to be told the software was so user-friendly there would be no need.
He explains: "The plan had been to have Welshpool High School students design an artefact for primary school pupils to customise, either by adding a name or inserting a piece of clip art, both of which could be machined. But in practice, the primary pupils were determined to create artifacts of their own from scratch and their designs were far more complex than we had been envisaged at the planning stage."
Participating pupils create objects on the computers at school using Boxford's software then email their designs to the partnership centre, where they are made. Alternatively, pupils can take their designs to the centre and watch them being manufactured on the CNC machining centre using MDF offcuts donated by a local firm.
Buttington-Trewern has also joined the CADCAM project and the desk of head teacher Colin Jenkins is now covered with personalised paperweights, bookends and door plates designed by pupils.
Mary Oldham is librarian of Welshpool High School