A bespoke approach

14th September 2007 at 01:00
A special school with just 67 pupils is leading the way for excellence in ICT across Scotland, writes Miranda Fettes

ISOBEL MAIR School in East Renfrewshire caters for pupils aged five to 18 with additional support needs, ranging from severe to complex learning difficulties and autistic spectrum disorders.

In November 2006, it won an ICT award from Becta (the UK agency for improving learning through technology) and in January 2007 it became the first school in Scotland to receive Becta's ICT mark (an independent quality award) for being "an outstanding, creative and innovative school".

That same year, it was awarded the Scottish Qualifications Authority's centre of the year gold award for its use of new technology and, in March, a very positive HMIE report commended it for its "highly effective and well targeted use of ICT" and "very high quality education", giving six excellents, eight very goods and one adequate.

Mari Wallace, the headteacher, considers ICT a "powerful tool to support all aspects of learning and teaching". All staff, she says, have embraced it.

"To enable our children to be successful learners, it is very important that we have a very individualised approach," she says. "ICT helps the teachers to create an appropriate motivating context for learning for each child and to really tailor the curriculum to meet individual needs."

A strong multi-sensory approach to learning is evident throughout the school. Pupils use power switches for practical activities, encouraging independence, while staff give clear instructions and explanations of tasks using various forms of communication, such as simple language, gestures, pictures, symbols, books and flip charts.

Classes can contain three to 10 pupils, depending on each child's needs. One child will only learn maths if it is taught in connection with EastEnders. So the teacher downloads pictures and information from the BBC1 soap opera's website and incorporates characters and plot elements into the lesson. Other children, with an interest in football, learn maths best if it is taught with references to the game, clubs and players, while early reading can be taught by incorporating the Teletubbies or Bob the Builder.

"ICT is a very powerful tool to enable us to do that," explains Mrs Wallace. "We have a huge focus on content-free software (such as Clicker, Kid Pix and SMART Notebook), because that enables teachers to produce resources to suit the abilities and needs of their pupils. It's not about buying a program and sticking it in the computer; the teachers actually devise the material."

The school has invested heavily in hardware, including iPods, laptops, video conferencing, digital cameras and augmentative communication devices such as dynamos. Pupils can create stories using software to download graphics or add ClipArt images, which "really improves their writing", says Mrs Wallace. They can then share their stories with friends, using the interactive whiteboard or print them and compile them into books.

"The interactive whiteboards especially provide a motivating, multi-sensory environment for the children," she says. "You're also embracing different learning styles and multiple intelligences of the children."

The iPods have been very useful for homework, encouraging independent learning and enabling parents to support their child's learning. Younger children can practise their reading at home with passages from their books recorded onto iPod Shuffle to assist them, while older children use the iPods to listen to chapters of novels.

One pupil, a keen Brownie, gave her Brownie promise earlier this year using a Step-by-Step with a pre-recorded phrase. She pressed the switch at the appropriate moment, thus using ICT skills learnt at school to enable her to interact socially.

Video iPods have also been used to create a bank of teaching resources for teachers joining the school. New staff can watch the short films to learn how to do various tasks, as Mrs Wallace is aware that some teachers coming into the school may find the idea of all the ICT, and having to learn new skills, intimidating.

"We have three key principles that we embrace: the belief that ICT is a powerful tool to support all aspects of learning and teaching; rigorous staff development; and a very strong culture of self- evaluation by pupils, parents, staff, the authority quality assurance and going for external quality awards," says Mrs Wallace.

"The skill is in the use that you make of different software. That's where teachers are empowered. We've built up a high degree of expertise in-house and also employ the services of an ICT consultant to ensure continuous improvement to keep on the cutting edge of technology. We see the added value every day. That's why the staff believe in it."


Our Journey to Excellence along the Microtech Road: Mari Wallace will give a presentation on September 19, 1.30pm.

For further sessions on additional support needs, go to www.scottishlearningfestival.com

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