Against the odds

4th March 2005 at 00:00
An ict teacher in Watford has literally knocked down the walls - five of them -to personalised and self-sufficient learning. Jack Kenny reports

You have to place John Rutherford in context. Hertfordshire LEA does not encourage selection and yet, by some educational sleight of hand, in Watford there are still grammar schools for both girls and boys. This leaves Francis Combe school, where John teaches, with 78.6 per cent of the students classed as having some form of special educational need.

The first things that strikes you about John are his humour and his pragmatism. In a voice that he describes as making him sound like a refugee from EastEnders, he outlines the changes he has brought about since he joined the school. The idea for the first project came from his headteacher, Sylvia Moore. Casually, she asked John if he could see any merit removing the walls of five classrooms on the top floor of a teaching block to make a very large computer room. He could and did. Francis Combe now has an open-plan ICT room that can accommodate 160 children and is equipped with four "pods" with 24 work stations in each, and a lecture area with whiteboard and laptops. "Equal access to quality learning," is John's phrase.

Due to the difficulties in raising achievement at Francis Combe, John realised that he needed to devise a different way of learning for the students. He tried various commercially available packages, which, although they were probably successful elsewhere, did not work at Francis Combe. The packages, he says, "were little more than online textbooks and difficult for the students to understand or enjoy. Over the past two years, from an initial idea, I have managed to create a portfolio systemJ-a managed learning environment that is successful in the school."

Probably John's most significant achievement is that he has created, and refined, a way of working that makes students autonomous, independent and self-sufficient in their learning because they have a more personalised learning program. John has revolutionised the teaching of ICT. In each lesson students can be working on a number of strands according to their ability, interests and progress. Teachers' roles have changed. They are there, not as information givers, but to help students when required. It is remarkable that all this has been achieved in a school that presents so many challenges.

Microsoft Agents (animated characters) and a range of multimedia tools, in particular, helped John to devise a way to help students access tasks, information and assistance. The agents prompt and guide pupils through tasks and those with reading difficulties can simply listen to them. Also, he has linked these resources to an automatic monitoring system he has created to follow the progress of all students at any particular time.

The plague of all ICT teachers' lives is the time that they take demonstrating the same things over and over again. John argues that the techniques he has devised have almost eradicated the "How do I do this? What do I do next?" questions: "As a result, students are much more independent in their learning, lessons are very effectively differentiated with students able to work at their own pace, and teachers have more time to undertake real quality tuition."

The levels of success and motivation among the students have risen because of these resources, and John believes the school is set to benefit from a dramatic improvement in results this year. Some students have managed to get enough marks to pass GNVQ ICT after just two modules Too often teachers who win awards are seen as people who are in special circumstances that are not available to most teachers. John Rutherford's work puts the lie to rest. If John can achieve what he has in a school where more than three quarters of the students have special needs... Well, the possibilities are only too clear.


* Break down students' barriers to learning. Get to know how your students learn - are they auditory, visual or kinaesthetic learning styles? Learning opportunities for each should be provided in every lesson.

* Enable students to work at their own pace wherever possible. ICT provides the means to do this to a level previously unthinkable.

* Make learning fun. Use music, videos and games to make your learning environment one students will look forward to being in. There is a lot of software available to aid this - check out Question Genie from Birchfield Interactive

* Use ICT to reduce your administrative burdens, such as auto-marking. Once created, you can use them again and again - paper wastage is reduced, students enjoy instant feedback and you have saved yourself the chore of marking a load of papers.

* Learn from the students. Don't be afraid to let the students loose a little -they may know more than you about computers.


* www.froguts.comDissect a frog or squid online.


A huge database of fantastic free resources.

* A large selection of quality resources for teaching ICT and ICT-related courses.

* CCICT.htm

A great place for lots of ideas and advice on cross-curricular ICT.

* School website.


* CamStudio Free downloadable software enabling you to produce video demonstrations of your actions on a computer.

* Microsoft Agents Small animated characters that you can program to talk to your students.

Microsoft Agent Scripting Software (MASS) is a free download to get you started.

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