As Midlands schools pioneer IT, Patrick Kelly shows how keyboards can supplement blackboards.
Birmingham hates being called the "second city" in the UK. Its education authority reckons it's the first to recognise the full potential of IT in the classroom. Having declared 1996 the Year of Information Technology, conferences, exhibitions, seminars and open days will explain the latest advances in educational technology. Hundreds of events have been organised to explain how computers can aid learning, not just for children, but for teachers and parents too. And every school in Birmingham is challenged to improve its use of technology.
Many have already done so - and the city is proud of two in particular. Like many teachers, David Broadfield wasn't too sure what electronic gadgetry has to do with real person-to-person teaching. Now he's a convert and his Birmingham primary school is cited by admiring Ofsted inspectors as a pioneer user of computer technology.
Phrases like "centre of excellence", "international levels", "pupils' outstanding progress" do not trip lightly off the Ofsted tongue. Yet these kind of observations are common for Robin Hood school in Hall Green. But when Broadfield arrived as head seven years ago, he was a computer novice. His first batch of PCs, begged and borrowed from various sources, completely transformed some of the most difficult and demotivated pupils in the school: "For the first time, they didn't have to be dragged to do something - they loved it."
Computers give children a non-threatening, instant response, he says, and this enables them to do sustained, concentrated work virtually without noticing. It also enhances their self-esteem. There were no invidious comparisons between good and bad handwriting for example. "Printed-out work looks as good as anyone else's and the sight of it on the wall gives self-esteem to pupils who had precious little of it," says Broadfield.
Staff at the school built on this early interest. IT became not an add-on to teaching but an integrated part of school life. Robin Hood now has 60 computers and an impressive array of state-of-the-art equipment including scanners and video cameras. And suppliers fall over themselves in a bid to get the school to test their latest products.
In the nursery class, children use the keyboard and mouse to construct simple sentences. By the age of 11, pupils happily use databases, explore the Internet and put together a multimedia version of their record of achievement - complete with soundtrack, video clips and graphics. "By the time they get to the top of the school, IT is underpinning their curriculum," says Broadfield.
The results are convincing. Continued improvement in standard assessment tasks has seen the school leap from its once lowly position so that it is now slightly above average in maths and science and only 5 to 6 per cent below average in English. From being a "last chance saloon" for difficult children, Robin Hood is now oversubscribed.
But the head is at pains to point out that the technical wizardry does not usurp the role of teachers. "IT is just a tool - teachers still have to know when to intervene - still have to build relationships with the children. But one of the great things about IT is that it gives teachers a chance to explore how to do something together with the children. They don't have to know everything."
Broadfield's deputy Ann Aston says, "It gives children a real buzz to find they can do something that teacher didn't know. But we had to create an atmosphere in which teachers know it's all right to make a mistake." There's a weekly drop-in session for teachers to try out new software.
"The atmosphere has changed so that pupils feel that even if they are not good academically, they are as good if not better at IT than anyone else," says Broadfield. "It lays the foundation for employment prospects."
At Selly Park Girls, they're also keen on teaching the new skills of a computer literate age. Indeed, the school is so firmly wedded to the new era that as of January it will have technology college status. Ten years ago that would have looked like a pipe dream. Selly Park was about to disappear off the map altogether with poor results, falling rolls and the loss of its sixth form.
Then Wendy Davies became head - and managed to "drag the school from the Fifties into the next century". GCSE results have blossomed. Nearly four times as many girls achieve five A to C grades (43 per cent). Rolls are up and the school is now oversubscribed. Talking to Davies is like surfing the Internet - she fizzes and buzzes with energy and ideas. You can see how persuasive she must have been in those early years at Selly Park, when she promoted the school at every fete, fair and bring-and-buy sale in the neighbourhood.
Her philosophy is disarmingly simple. Self-esteem is the key to learning and innovation the key to improvement. A computer science graduate, she believes that computers help build that self-esteem while innovation interests and excites children. She took one pupil to a technology show so that she could receive praise from professionals. "That girl went home on cloud nine - and her work got even better," she recalls.
Davies employed another IT buff, Mel Tennant, as her deputy with a brief to get IT into every aspect of the curriculum within five years. Tennant, who approaches his job with Messianic fervour, did it in two. "Mel knows about IT, he knows about the national curriculum and he's an entrepreneur. He's been essential to the process," says Davies. Testimony to Tennant's skills are the various contributions to Selly Park's IT revolution - Pounds 3,000 from Cadbury's, Pounds 10,000 from Middlesex University, 15 computers and software from Systems Integrated Research and ICL.
Davies will have no truck with the view that computers and technology are a male preserve and neither do her girls. "They love the computers," she says. "They want to go to maths lessons so they can get their hands on them. A PC doesn't shout at you when you get things wrong, it doesn't care what sex you are, or give two hoots about the colour of your skin." She is at pains to point out that IT is still part of a "balanced diet" - an aid to traditional teaching skills. She believes fervently that computers can take the drudgery out of the job. "Think of the time it can save on marking and writing endless reports. It gives you much more time for teaching." The school is certainly buzzing. Visitors give interviews on the school video channel, terminals blink and printers chatter in every room. One Spanish class is conversing with a native speaker via a video link, another is holding an on-air discussion about religion with a distant school.
Video-conferencing is an important tool in a school where 85 per cent of the girls are Asian. "Many parents won't allow their daughters to go on school trips," says Davies. "Using video equipment the girls can speak to pupils whom they would never get a chance to meet."