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Supply beats demand

Where there's a will ... Pete Roythorne visits a school where ICT helped relieve staff of onerous extra duties

The learning centre is a hive of activity, with two Year 8 groups and one from Year 11 engrossed, each studying different subjects. There's one teacher - who doubles as the learning centre manager - and three support staff to answer students' questions. The pupils are here because their teachers are absent. But the staff looking after them are not missing free lessons - they are dedicated to the centre. Cover is a thing of the past at Philip Morant school in Colchester, Essex.

"In two years we've almost halved our bill for cover and supply teaching," explains Russell Moon, the headteacher. There is, of course, a trade-off for teachers; because their free time is guaranteed, they take one extra class per week.

The centre is in almost constant use. All the work is set by the children's teachers. Thanks to Microsoft's Class Server software, staff are able to plan lessons. Those who are ill or absent for other reasons can email work to the learning centre manager, who pastes it into the system for individual students to pick up.

A typical lesson involves directing the children to specialised online resources, completing tests, having them marked online and doing the corrections; or allowing pupils to do their own research before creating a document of their findings for the teacher mark at a later stage.

Each child has a personal log-in, so it is possible for work to be tailored to individual needs. It is impressive. "It's a much more effective use of the time," says Moon. "Cover or supply teachers would not be able to keep the children as focused as they are in the learning centre."

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. "Three years ago, things were very different," says Moon. "We were spending pound;50,000 a year on firefighting to keep the system up and running."

In 2002 Philip Morant became a Pathfinder school for ICT. A survey into why staff faced heavy workloads highlighted three factors: marking and preparation, administration and cover. It was decided to see if technolgy could help. There was a complete reappraisal of the school's network facilities. It meant buying industrial-strength servers, upgrading, replacing or buying new hardware and installing a whole-school wireless network system.

"One of the most important factors to ensure the success of this project was for us to truly understand what was possible and what we had to do to make it happen in terms of pupils, parents, staff and infrastucture," says Moon. "This process alone took at least three months."

To create a successful transition, the school had to concentrate on training and supporting its staff. In addition to whole-day courses, every Thursday afternoon there is a drop-in workshop for staff drop. To support this, there is a two-tier "buddying" system: each teacher has a buddy, another teacher they can turn to with problems. Groups of buddies have a super buddy, with more technology savvy. "This takes the pressure off the network manager," explains Moon.

There are plans to develop online learning, improve student behaviour and achievement with a central information system, grant parental access, create student communities of learning and instal a wireless device for every student.

"The process has given us the confidence to look at any problems and ask, 'How can we use ICT to solve that?' " says Moon. "It's not just been about improving standards for teachers - our pupils are more IT literate, more used to independent learning and more motivated."

The year after the ICT plans were introduced, top-grade GCSE results rose three percentage points to 74 per cent. Whatever the future, Philip Morant has already achieved the holy grail of ICT implementation by gaining measurable and quantifiable results.

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