Channel island discs

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady visits a Guernsey school where keeping up to date with IT is vitally important

To a visitor from London the island of Guernsey evokes all the calmness and gentility of an English market town in the Fifties. It is very pretty; the roads are narrow and jam free; many of the people seem to speak with what were once called "BBC accents", though I was told that in parts there is a distinctive accent and the old French patois still survives. It is an image that the island works very hard to preserve.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Take The Ladies College in St Peter Port. Both in name and look it lives up to the island's image; but the college is not in a time-warp. Its IT policy, for example, is bang up-to-date. Ironically, the school feels this is the best way to prepare its students for life on the island and in particular for the finance sector, the present success of which is assured by the island's tax haven status. Tourism too is a big earner and the island's government a big employer.

Young people usually stay on Guernsey or return after university in the UK, for there are enough attractions on the island to hold them. Apart from the obvious pull of a mild climate, full employment and a virtually crime-free environment, their position as Guernsey folk is a privileged one. Young people have access to a housing market that is almost barred to outsiders, who have to spend vast sums in the alternative and smaller "open" market. In turn, because the population is restricted, jobs are available and young people with the right skills are well paid.

This is the situation then for which The Ladies College has to prepare its pupils.

Over the last five years this independent school, which has 351 girls in the senior school, has upped its number of computers to about 45, including 35 Pentium 90s; moved from Acorn - the only school on the island to do so - to PCs (the favoured machine of the island's financial sector). It has introduced the girls to the Internet, set up a school-wide database, started City and Guilds courses for all pupils to replace the GCSE and established an administrative database that includes a facility for producing pupils' reports on the school's computers. Along the way it has introduced them to speech synthesisers and other state-of-the-art gizmos.

Eric Gaskell, head of technology, came to The Ladies College five years ago and since then has introduced the changeover to PCs - he also negotiated a scheme with Microsoft to give pupils a reduction on Microsoft Office for their home computers and introduced the City and Guilds Basic Competence in Information Technology module which every girl takes - others may go on to take further modules.

"It is more geared up to the work place, covers practicalities and is very flexible," says Gaskell. "There's no public examination timetables and some students can do more modules. No girl leaves without a basic qualification. "

A year ago the school also established a new computer room where information technology is taught and where teachers from other disciplines bring their classes to use the IT equipment - the school is moving away from teaching information technology as a discrete subject towards a more cross-curricular approach. Science and geography are so far the main users. There is also a lunchtime computer club.

In this bright, modern room are 18 Pentium Multimedia PCs with a master machine and a 30-inch monitor screen at the front. Other pieces of equipment include a colour scanner, plotter and laser printer. Computers are also housed in the library and in the sixth-form study area.

The school recently got on to the Internet via the Microsoft Network, and on the day I was there several of the girls, watched by Eric Gaskell, were carrying on an electronic mail conversation with respondents in various countries. On other occasions it is possible to see them using a voice synthesiser. Desktop publishing is a favourite application and the school magazine is produced in-house.

To help staff, Eric Gaskell has developed a college database, which the school is now in the process of changing from Lotus Approach to Microsoft in order to make the most of Windows 95.

Similar to SIMS, it is, however, tailor-made for the school and therefore more flexible, says Eric Gaskell. "It is completely open. I can go in anywhere and change data around," says Gaskell.

Password protected, the database contains pupils' and parents' details, results of exams and medical details so that in the event of a student becoming ill, it is possible to quickly retrieve the relevant information.

Also stored is information collected for the Independent Schools Information Service, data which can be used to do an age census or see at a glance how many girls there are in each house so that the school house system can keep the numbers even or analyse exam results. But you have to be careful not to get overloaded with statistics, says Eric Gaskell. "It's important to ask if the information is really necessary."

A very useful application of the database is the production of reports. Report writing in any school is a time-consuming and often frustrating business. If done by hand it entails thousands of pieces of paper, on which much of the information is duplicated, being moved round the school many times.

At The Ladies College all staff now get a disc. What shows on the screen is a form with the schools' details and basic information about each girl already filled in. Teachers then type the report. To help this process those who don't have their own computers are lent one of the school's six lap-tops. The discs are then returned to Eric Gaskell who merges them into the database. Form teachers and the headmistress then do any necessary corrections and add their own comments on the computer. Those end-of-term reports are then available so, for example, the head can discuss a girl's progress with parents. Eric Gaskell is confident that what the reports lose in a less personal look they gain in legibility and points out that, because there is more space, teachers can add common paragraphs on what is being covered and the goals for that part of the curriculum.

And the future? Principal Margaret Macdonald would like to establish another area with computers which the girls could use for private study. But the main task is to extend their cross-curricular work - to use computers as a tool to service all subjects.

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