ict is helping the winners of the Learning Environment School of the Year 2004 award give its community a renewed sense of self-respect
"Things have been difficult in the past, and education is a way forward."
So says Terry Laverty, conveying the sense of purpose that has underpinned a decade of remarkable achievement by his Belfast school.
Terry is principal of Holy Cross Boys' Primary, in Ardoyne. He arrived in 1996, two years after Holy Cross became involved in the Raising Schools Standards initiative, which aims to up standards in underperforming Belfast schools. Today the school is flourishing as a focus for learning in the whole community. It is a beacon of good ICT practice - and a testament to how a positive approach can triumph in difficult circumstances.
"Ardoyne has been badly affected by social deprivation and especially by the Troubles," says Terry. "Our sister school, Holy Cross Girls', was in the news a couple of years ago when pupils couldn't get to school because of Loyalist protests. More recently, the suicides of young men have brought a sense of depression to the area. But we try to be optimistic. We believe individuals can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and not be held back by difficulties. We have high expectations, we want to be a school the community can be proud of."
Terry insists there has been no "massive strategy", rather a series of evolving "mini-plans". But the common thread was the drive to establish a community of learners, using ICT as the focus for bonding pupils, teachers, parents and the wider community.
"After the ceasefire, people were interested in learning again. We found there was no stigma attached to ICT - it wasn't something they associated with their previous experience of education." explains Damian Harvey, the school's ICT co-ordinator. "We felt it was a great way of tackling issues such as adult literacy and underachievement of boys."
Software was targeted at helping the boys with literacy and numeracy, and tools selected to support different learning styles and help identify special needs. Some of these tools, such as the SuccessMaker integrated learning system, are now used by parents, who were first tempted into school by technology taster sessions. In a stroke of genius, grandparents were also invited, and have proved a major influence in encouraging their families to take part in the activities offered on the school's website.
The school has helped parents find affordable computers; two-thirds of families now have PCs and half of all homes have internet access.
Parents come in for classes in reading and maths, or to study for the European Computer Driving Licence qualification. When two adult students recently stopped coming to lessons, it was for the happiest of reasons - they'd got jobs. "We've moved beyond the original idea of parents 'genning up' to help their children with homework," says Terry. "Their learning has now led to work."
Many individual success stories attest to the power of ICT in helping nurture self-respect, particularly for boys in danger of feeling like failures because they do not shine at English, maths or science, subjects still tested in the 11-plus in Northern Ireland. "I have one boy who not long ago had special educational needs. He turned into a computer buff, and is now a completely different boy," says Terry. "He shows me his website, and the teachers are agog at what he has achieved. ICT has helped this young boy grow in confidence and self-esteem."
A key factor in the success of this project has been Damian Harvey's work in team-teaching with his colleagues for the past three years, to help develop their confidence with ICT. "Now they deliver the lessons themselves, and I'm on hand to sort out technical problems," he explains.
Modest about their talents, both Terry and Damian describe themselves as "ordinary guys doing a job to the best of our ability". "Much of what we are doing is basic, but it is important," says Terry. "We firmly believe it is possible for other schools in deprived areas to raise standards, using ICT as a positive mechanism to help make the change."
Holy Cross Boys' Primary will spend its pound;3,000 prize on increasing its complement of interactive whiteboards. First introduced at Holy Cross last year, the boards are the focus for a number of collaborative and creative initiatives.
In one project, Primary 7 pupils have linked up with their peers in Ballygolan Primary, a Protestant school in North Belfast, to research a series of American topics, collaborating by email and using their joint findings to produce learning resources. The aim is to produce high quality materials to be used by Meadowlark Elementary school, a video-conferencing partner in North Carolina. "We also have links with rural schools outside Belfast, and schools in the Republic of Ireland. We are trying to get away from the notion of insularity and parochial vision, and widen horizons," says ICT co-ordinator Damian Harvey.
Holy Cross also recently invested in digital video (DV) equipment - a decision which Principal Terry Laverty admits was one of the biggest risks the school has taken.
"We hadn't tried it before, but we looked at examples of other DV work, and thought: 'We could do even better than that!'"
After experimenting with the equipment, Harvey set up a Monday afternoon video club, and in the space of 12 weeks the boys produced a video that went on to secure second prize in the Age 8-11 category of this year's Becta Digital Video Awards.
"We took a gamble, but there is a sea change happening in the Northern Ireland curriculum, and we expect to see more emphasis on creativity," says Laverty. "DV gave us a way into creativity, and it has given the boys new skills - such as planning and teamwork - that they can take on to secondary school."