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Step to the Mersey beat

Chris Johnston investigates how children in one city's deprived areas are winning the technology race.

Dinosaurs, an online "agony aunt" and games encouraging children to get to know their local police officers are just some of the hi-tech resources being used to boost children's literacy, numeracy and social skills in Liverpool.

City councillors hoped the pound;4.3 million Primary Step project would help schools in deprived areas catch up in the technology race, but its main aim is to develop literacy and numeracy skills by including ICT across the curriculum.

Thirty-one primary schools were selected to take part in the project, and seven more have used their own funds to join in, so up to 10,000 children are taking part. The schools in the scheme are now doing so well that they are surpassing others that have received more funding in the past and some reading ages, based on Nelson tests, have improved by up to 39 per cent.

Allan Lund, head of Anfield junior school, says the considerable amount of training his staff have received has had a huge effect on their ICT skills and confidence. More than 430 computers have been put into the schools and Mr Lund says the new suite in his school - in a deprived area of Liverpool - gives pupils an access to technology that most do not have at home and "helps put them on a level playing field". He also stresses the importance of strong technical support to keep it all running.

To stimulate the use of ICT, online resources have been created for the Primary Step web pages. One area focuses on the impact of the Second World War on Liverpool, with pictures, first-hand accounts and activities. Another section, Space Oddity, was created after teachers requested online resources about the solar system.

Virtual reality software is yet another tool that is being enlisted to capture pupils' imaginations. Seeing dinosaurs through headsets similar to those used in Star Trek: The Next Generation is agreat way to motivate disaffected pupils to tackle creative writing, although the units are expensive at pound;3,000 each.

Additionally, video-conferencing facilities have been placed in each school, making it possible for children to have lessons in music and languages that would not otherwise have been available.

One illustration of the wider community thinking behind Primary Step is the Cop Cards scheme, suggested by local police. To win a computer, children had to collect 20 cards featuring pictures of police officers and nearby landmarks and find competition clues on the website. As well as developing literacy, geography and ICT skills, pupils have got to know their police officers better.

In another schools-community link, grandmother "Auntie Eunice" Smith acts as an e-mail agony aunt, giving pupils a further incentive to sharpen their writing skills.

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Activities on can inspire other teachers. Mersey's inter-school projects have included:

* A road show exploring what happens when a fictional brother and sister break all the school rules. Extension activities involved pupils e-mailing the disruptive siblings to ask why they behaved as they did. These activities cut across ICT, PSHE, literacy and citizenship.

* The Agony Aunt section contains stories by Joan Patterson. One is about Katie, who was "so quiet" that her teacher forgot her. Another concerns Andrea, who "enjoyed hurting children". Pupils are asked: "Can you recognise a likeness to anybody you know? If you would like to ask some questions about the characters or the situations they find themselves in, contact Auntie Eunice."

* A healthy eating section and quiz. The quiz has various levels and to reach the next stage you have to successfully complete the level you are on. A similar activity could easily be developed as a group or class e-mail project.

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