Special education - Lend an ear to this idea

Technology is keeping children at a pupil referral unit connected, no matter whether they are in a classroom or a corridor. Biddy Passmore finds out how

Biddy Passmore

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Turning a pupil referral unit into a hi-tech hub, where pupils can log on and learn whenever and wherever they are, might sound like a recipe for chaos. After all, children at PRUs are usually there because they have been excluded from school for challenging behaviour or poor attendance.

But Parkside in Ipswich is a highly unusual PRU and the pupils who attend it present challenges of a different kind. Most of the 32 full-time pupils aged 13 to 16 have mental health issues, ranging from school phobia to anorexia. Around half have autism and find normal classrooms hard to bear. The majority have not been excluded but have withdrawn from mainstream education, either because they were bullied or because they could not cope.

"Parkside works with some of the most difficult to reach young people," says Stuart Bailey, the headteacher. To enable them to keep learning whatever their mood or circumstances, the unit decided three years ago to turn itself into a virtual learning environment (VLE).

Now, whether pupils are at home, in hospital or in the unit but reluctant to join others in a classroom, they can keep up with their learning.

Through the Government's Computers for Pupils scheme, all pupils have access to computers and the internet. Within the unit, they can take a laptop from a trolley and "join the class" while sitting in the canteen or corridor, using the wireless network within the building.

"Pupils who are not able to access a lesson become disconnected and start to break away," says Stuart. "What we're doing with technology is keeping them connected. It's like an umbilical cord.

"ICT has also enabled us to draw in the families and get them more involved," Stuart says. Month-long courses have introduced parents to the technology their children use at school.

ICT is taught as a separate subject and is an integral part of all other subject areas. Parkside staff and pupils do not have the problem of having to book specific rooms at certain times for the purpose, he points out.

Acquiring good ICT skills also enables the children to participate in their own personalised learning programme, by accessing the internet as well as the Parkside VLE.

Using new technology also allows staff to provide more differentiated material for pupils of varying abilities. And it enables a small unit with a limited budget to offer courses beyond the core subjects via distance learning.

Christine Allen, a teacher in North Wales, gives lively lessons in Spanish to Years 10 and 11 via video conferencing from her kitchen every week.

"She's one of the best teachers I've ever seen," says Stuart. Parkside has also been able to link with other schools for additional English and maths to extend more able learners, and with the National Portrait Gallery to access its expertise for art.

The unit's attendance rate, already about 90 per cent before the changes were introduced, has become even higher now that pupils know they can attend and keep up with lessons even if they don't want to physically join the class. In fact, says Stuart, giving pupils the choice of studying on their own or with others has even overcome some pupils' reluctance to go into lessons.

So successful and creative has Parkside been with its use of new technology that it won the award for best whole school in the East of England in the recent Becta ICT Excellence Awards.

And Stuart thinks that the flexibility offered by its digital revolution could be replicated elsewhere. "Everyone says we can do this because we're small," he says. "But I think you could do this in the mainstream, in a much larger school."

For more information, visit www.parkside.suffolk.sch.uk.

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Biddy Passmore

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