West London's Cranford School is a model of how technology can be used to overcome disadvantage. Chris Johnston reports
It's a wet, windy winter morning. One after another the jets scream as they make their final descent into Heathrow airport. We are in Hounslow, west London. Let's face it - this is not a place where Peter Mandelson would live or Tony Blair would send his children to school.
But plenty of people do live here because they work for companies that service the airport. Cranford Community School is where 1,300 of their children get their education. The proximity to Heathrow means the comprehensive has a number of refugees who join very late, often close to GCSE exams. About 80 per cent of pupils come from homes where English is not the first language.
It is not a recipe for easy educational success. Marian Brooks, Cranford's headteacher, says that the school has the "worst profile of intake" in the borough. Yet for those students who have been at the school for the whole five years, 45 per cent - 2 per cent above the national average - gained five or more top grade GCSEs last year. The figure for all pupils was only 6 per cent below the average.
National test results are also above the national average, which Brooks proudly describes as a "colossal" achievement. So how has Cranford been able to beat the odds and get its results to a more than respectable level? The key, according to Brooks, has been changing the culture that children from such backgrounds are not going to achieve very much to one that values the ability to speak another language and acknowledges different ways of learning. "Information technology was central to that endeavour, because IT doesn't care what language you speak," she says.
The school has used information and communications technology to stop "one-chance" learning, where pupils understand the first time or miss out. "That's no good for our kids - the information can't go in the first time, so they need to be able to go back and revisit it." Pupils can do this in a variety of ways, such as watching videos of exemplar lessons or using Internet simulations to allow experiments to be repeated.
The school also uses integrated learning systems to develop reading and numeracy skills in Years 7 and 8. Brooks says this emphasis is responsible for the dramatic improvement in the national test scores. All pupils use an integrated learning system, which forms a central part of English and maths lessons. In addition, an ILS called Plato helps to develop key skills at key stage 4 (GCSE-level) and GNVQ (vocational A-level).
ICT is explicit in all schemes of work. It permeates so many aspects of the school, Brooks says, it is hard to avoid. Some pupils say that the ICT content of their lessons is what they enjoy the most. "If you can get children to learn because it's fun, you're three-quarters of the way home," she says. She identifies Cranford's learning resource centre as being crucial to the school's strategy. It is open from 8am to 5.30pm and gives access to a range of software, as well as the Internet. Pupils work alongside more mature students attending the many adult education courses offered on the same site. Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education were particularly impressed with the way pupils used the facility for independent study before and after school, as well as at lunchtimes.
Although the initial push for making ICT an integral part of teaching came from the head, Brooks now believes the vision is very much shared. New teachers must be ICT-literate or willing to learn, she says, and there are also a number of non-teachers (including a former sixth-form student) in support roles.
Brooks wants to see the school network extended to all areas of the curriculum and ensure that provision is of equal quality. Another ambition is to give every member of staff a computer so that they can access the school network from wherever they are. "Having them doing marking, preparing and assessment online would make a colossal difference."
The school's curriculum is available on its network and can be accessed by pupils from home via the PIC (Personal Information Connect) software that RM is testing at Cranford. Users can download material and store files in personal folders on the network. This is just what two Cranford pupils on an 18-month sailing voyage with their parents are doing to keep up with their school work.
So that the 60 per cent of pupils without a computer at home do not miss out, Brooks would like a loan system introduced. "That would not be that difficult to achieve with collaborative partners and suppliers."
ICT is also used to provide subjects with small numbers of students, such as German at A-level, which is delivered via video-conferencing. The head would also like to use technology to extend partnerships with industry, so that representatives could be involved in a short discussion via video-conferencing without having to leave their desks.
Paper-based internal communication has been largely replaced by email. The same ethos is being applied to students. Increasingly, Year 7 and 8 students complete tasks on-screen and, on many vocational courses, students deliver PowerPoint presentations rather than hand in a piece of paper.
Although Brooks says the staff are all "exceptionally IT-competent", they cannot know everything, which is why some sixth-formers are used to train teachers in various aspects of ICT. "Why should you not learn from somebody who has better skills than you?" she asks. The head herself seeks student assistance when preparing a presentation, which she says demonstrates to teachers that "It's OK not to know all the answers".
Every key stage 4 student takes the IT GNVQ and has completed at least two units by the end of Year 11. The first students will finish the GNVQ this summer and the strategy should have a positive effect on Cranford's performance at GSCE. However, Brooks point out that the main aim was to support its ICT and language teaching and give every student a vocational qualification.
It may not have the tag, but Cranford is truly a beacon school. It is a living example of how ICT can both make learning more enjoyable for students and raise standards. There is much others can gain from this school's experience.