New pupils at a rural secondary are no longer daunted on the first day because they have already been there on the Internet, writes Valerie Hall.
We all remember our first day at "big school" and, as anyone who has moved up from a small rural primary will tell you, it can be a terrifying and bewildering experience. Sophisticated orienteering skills are needed for those endless corridors - not to mention the timetable - and, when you do get lost, you are too intimidated to ask directions of the gigantic children confidently milling around in their hundreds.
Now one such secondary, Thomas Mills High in Framlingham is helping to make the transition relatively painless for newcomers by linking up online with its five feeder primary schools in rural Suffolk - in an "Internet for Learning" project.
Awarded technology college status in 1996, Thomas Mills has been granted almost pound;500,000 to invest in projects to extend and enhance the teaching of information and communications technology, mathematics, science and design technology.
Ian Smith, head of IT at Thomas Mills says that Year 7 students have created pages "to give the child's eye view of what new students need to know when they start secondary school, such as bus information and what happens at lunchtime". They are also exchanging emails with Year 6 primary children on the subject.
In addition, primary pupils can search the site for information on the subjects they will be studying - school trips, sports days and much more - and can, like their teachers, access resource materials and educational games.
To encourage them to explore the entire site, there is a competition page offering prizes of book tokens. Every entry earns a pen and a certificate.
At an induction day held at Thomas Mills, children from the "pyramid", as they call the network of feeder schools linked to Thomas Mills, were given an introduction to the Internet and looked at pages designed specifically for them.
Thomas Mills also trained a number of primary staff with the help of Suffolk education authority, which provided each school with a desktop computer, a modem and high-capacity (ISDN) Internet connection. They, in turn, have helped their pupils set up home pages of their own.
Says Ian Smith: "We are coming across lots of little connections which help to bind the "pyramid" together, such as a student spotting his younger sister's web-page."
One of the primaries, Charsfield Church of England, may be the smallest with just six children in Year 6 but, with one computer per two pupils, it is extremely well equipped. Consequently, Charsfield pupils are "pretty competent in IT", says headteacher Mike Hayes. Paul, aged 11, Paula, 10, and Ben, 11, have each created their own pages describing themselves along with animated graphics.
At the launch evening last November, the pupils got up on stage to explain how it is done. "I talk about music and the school rabbits on my page," Paula says. "And I've been emailing people in New Zealand," Ben says. Asked what he thinks about Thomas Mills and its website, Paul replies: "The dinners are really nice."
Mr Hayes says: "Thomas Mills is a cracking school and has supported us in everything we've done. The interaction with all the schools is exciting and we'd be delighted to hear from other schools as well."
The initiative forms part of the overall "vision" of David Floyd, Thomas Mills's principal, who says: "Being one of only a few technology colleges to serve a rural area, our primary schools are scattered far and wide. Lack of transport makes it more difficult to use our windfall to allow people to benefit from our expertise and resources.
"We were anxious to try to help young people locally, particularly our 'pyramid', and realised this scheme was the best way of doing it. By the time pupils come to us, they will be extremely ICT-literate. We have some amazing resources on our site, which will revolutionise teaching."
Children who are at home through illness do not miss out, Floyd says, because their friends can email downloaded lesson notes on to them. Parents too get an insight into how their children are being taught.
New facilities at Thomas Mills include a science laboratory, a hi-tech mathematics block, a refurbished and expanded library, plus an ICT-based learning resource centre and upgraded and expanded school computer network. GCSE and A-level results are improving in these subjects - more than 40 per cent of lessons now contain an element of IT and all students have their own email address.
David Floyd's "vision" also extends to the wider community. An "IT for all" rural learning centre offering day and evening classes will be opened in September equipped with a suite of computers and offering access to the Internet.
Thomas Mills School - www.thomasmills.suffolk.sch.uk