In a divided society, one Belfast school is using ICT to raise achievement and aspirations, as Patrick Kelly reports
In Belfast geography can be fate - and to live in the Ardoyne, a deprived Catholic community wedged between two staunchly loyalist areas, is to experience the sharp end of a city deeply divided by politics and history.
But there's another front line in the Ardoyne - where the battle is to transcend the dictates of geography and class.
Spearheading the assault is Holy Cross boys school - a school which has transformed itself into one of the most successful primaries in the North of Ireland.
From a low of less than 10 per cent of children passing the 11-plus in Northern Ireland's selective system, now more than half of the boys secure coveted places in grammar schools. But what's so special about Holy Cross is its integration with adult and community learning - which makes the school a haven for parents and even grandparents in search of training and job opportunities.
And at the heart of this transformation has been a dynamic approach to the use of ICT, a fact which is evident in principal Terry Laverty's trophy cupboard.
In the past few years the school has scooped the ET Laureate award, the RamesysTES Learning Environment award, a Becta Digital Video award and Holy Cross now has beacon status for ICT good practice.
But Laverty is no computer buff - his passion for ICT stems entirely from his discovery of the impact it could have on attainment levels. "I was doubtful about ICT at first," he explains. "But I saw the research and I felt it could make a real difference here."
However, he knew his ambitious plans would not be realised unless he had community support. Links with the local community centre, charities and employers were forged to lever funds from a variety of regeneration programmes.
The result is two computer suites - 14 networked multimedia machines together with instructional software, a SMART Board interactive whiteboard, video-conferencing kit, digital cameras and Roamer floor robots and a set of handheld voting devices (the Classroom Performance System). One suite is dedicated to the SuccessMaker integrated learning system (ILS) while the other has ensured that Holy Cross boys are adept at website creation, video-conferencing and computer conferencing with other schools in Belfast and in the Republic of Ireland. Parents use the school e-mail address to leave messages and the children use it to post their homework and enter competitions.
You will find parents here from 8am to 10pm, not just picking their children up or accompanying them for a wigging from the principal, but trying their hand at everything from an Introduction to Computers ("what to do when you get it out of the box", says community liaison teacher Kevin McArevy) to the European Computer Driving Licence Level 2 . There are classes on numeracy and literacy too, digital photography, desktop publishing and even stress management. Kevin keeps track of parents'
progress, issues certificates and organises parents trips. He also liaises with local tutors and adult training providers to give advice to those who want to take their learning a stage further.
The parents are delighted with these opportunities. "I started off just doing the kids' maths course," says Karen Fox, who has a nine-year-old at Holy Cross, "because I wanted to be able to know what the boys were doing at school. I am doing GCSE maths now. I'm finding it hard but I want to be able to help the kids with their work."
Local community worker Michael Liggett is also enthusiastic. Holy Cross is the lynchpin of a community empowerment partnership which has attracted substantial funds to improve ICT skills throughout the Ardoyne. "We have loads of people moving back into education and training," he says. "You have to remember that many people are distrustful of officialdom here. This school is about the only institution they can have faith in."
But there are pay-offs for the children too, "Getting the parents involved makes a huge difference to these boys' aspirations, especially when their parents' experience of education has not been good," says Laverty. "The parents see the hard work that goes on here and get inspired - that helps the children."
* Leadership: decide what you want to do and get others to back your judgement - but you have got to show commitment.
* Make the links with the community to unlock funding. Schools do not exist in isolation. You have got to get involved with the youth club, the community centre, local employers. Together you are bigger than the sum of your parts.
* Get staff on board. There are lots of practical issues about having other adults on the premises during the school day. You have to resolve those to get staff support.
* Don't lose the plot. Always remember what the point of ICT is. It is a learning tool that can help to raise standards and you want to raise standards so the children in your school can have a better chance in life.
* Put building blocks in place first. Successful ICT is based on a spirit of teamwork that is already instilled in a school. And that applies to parents, staff and local communities too.
Advice and funding
* Northern Ireland Network for Education provides a host of ICT facilities and ideas for teachers. Holy Cross used it to establish its video-conferencing links with other schools. www.nine.org.uk
* Northern Ireland, and some other parts of the UK, qualify for special EU funds which contribute to the economic regeneration of deprived areas.
Schools can link with community-based organisations to apply for these funds. For information www. europe-dfpni.gov.uk is useful. You can also try www.eugrants.org and www.esf.gov.uk