Click! What a class connection

7th February 2003 at 00:00
It is more than 200 years since the first iron bridge in the world was thrown across the River Severn, but the intervening centuries have not dimmed the desire to innovate. Telford and Wrekin is seen as a leading local education authority for computers. Not that the results of its investment are always obvious in the classroom. Rather than acquiring banks of shiny PCs or boxloads of proprietary software, Telford has put its millions into miles of high-speed cabling that now constitute one of the fastest systems in the country.

It was one of the first decisions made when the new authority split from Shropshire in 1998. Instead of adopting a 64K ISDN connection - the standard technology for schools - Telford adopted an ultra quick 155Mg broadband connection.

This was neither cheap nor popular as the decision soaked up most of the unitary transition funding and almost all the initial grant money for the National Grid For Learning.

Schools were not impressed with the authority's jam-tomorrow approach.

"People didn't want a network," recalls Jenny Noel-Storr, head of Redhill primary school. "They wanted more computers, they didn't know what a network could do."

Anyone curious about what difference a 155Mg link makes to a school has only to visit Redhill. The Year 6 teacher, Lisa Williams, has an interactive whiteboard - a giant, wall-mounted screen - and three computers. The technology drives her lessons, allowing her to do things that would be impossible without this kit.

There is a whiteboard in every classroom at Redhill, which is fortunate in having a new building. Elsewhere schools have had to dig deep into their own budgets to pay for new equipment "We use the boards and the computers in every lesson," says Ms Williams.

"If we need a diagram, we do it beforehand and we save it. You come in, click the file and it's there."

The fast broadband connection means that there are no limits on how the Internet is used in any Telford school.

"An entire class can be using the Net and the download is instant," says Ms Williams. "We know that whenever we log on it will be there."

The authority has had considerable help from two outside sources. The local television company, Telewest, has an extensive network in place across the town, which meant that the holes and tubes were already in place when Telford came to install its network. Then the University of Wolverhampton was able to step in with "broadnet", an ultra high-speed link powered by its own bank of servers.

Redhill is in Priorslee, one of Telford's "executive" estates. Most of the children have computers at home, but there's been no sign of the technology being taken for granted.

"Every lesson they ask 'Who's on the computers today?'. If I ask for someone to come and demonstrate something on the whiteboard all the class will put their hands up," says Ms Williams.

Whiteboards have changed the way that Redhill's teachers work. Lisa Williams would be reluctant to return to flipcharts and a traditional board.

"I think it would be very difficult," she says. "Using ICT is so much more powerful. It would influence any decision about where I wanted to teach in future."

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