Community spirit;Cover feature

12th November 1999 at 00:00
"We offer everyone the opportunity, whatever their aptitude or ability, to realise their full potential, within a caring and supportive learning environment." As the worlds of education and business become evermore closely entwined and school management teams can often appear more involved in fund-raising and public relations than traditional teaching, it's refreshing to read a mission statement like this that places so strong a value on such essential notions as community and support, especially when it comes from a school that wants to connect local homes to its intranet.

Sawtry community college provides education for 980 students between the ages of 11 and 18, of whom over 100 are taking a variety of courses - A-level, NVQ, GNVQ - in a rapidly expanding sixth form. As the name suggests, the college is at the hub of a rural community and has a pupil intake from six primary schools in the area. Sawtry itself is the largest village (population: 5,000) in the community and is roughly equidistant from Huntingdon and Peterborough.

Astute management has led to the development of new science laboratories, a dual-purpose sports centre with swimming pool and indoor football pitches and a suite of technology rooms. The college also provides an on-site day nursery as well as an excellent library that is used by on-site students and the public. Internet access is available in the sports centre and, through Sawtry MultiTask, a wholly owned in-house company, the community education department can offer many courses including Embroidery, Psychology, Website Building and Information Technology.

The college has well-established links with the local business community and multinationals such as Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Microsoft and ICL. Involvement in the Schools On-Line and Anytime Anywhere Learning projects has also enhanced its reputation as a forward-thinking institution.

Long-term, the most significant development in ICT at Sawtry could be the introduction of wireless technology. One of the 28 pioneer educational establishments of the Anytime Anywhere Learning laptop project in the UK, the college equipped a class of 24 Year 8 students with laptops. What emerged during the first year of the pilot scheme was a renewed enthusiasm for learning. According to Valerie Winch, the students' form tutor, "their interest factor has quadrupled and their motivation has gone through the roof." It also became clear that the lack of network access points in some classrooms was a problem that would have to be addressed. Enter wireless solution.

In January 1999, wireless technology company BreezeCom fitted the college's most recent laptops with wireless network PC cards. Additionally, 10 wireless access points capable of transmitting data up to 1,000 metres were installed on the campus. Laptop users can now access the school network, cable-free, anywhere within wireless radius. The benefits are obvious. Students can, weather-permitting, work anywhere on the campus, indoors or out; and teachers who use the laptops to prepare lessons or for administration are no longer tethered to a finite number of network sockets.

Future developments should further cement the relationship between campus and community. Already, some of the Fujitsu laptops are available to adult education students and staff and students at local primary schools. From September 2000, the college intends to provide all Year 7 pupils with access to laptops. There are also plans to offer students a leasing deal in their final two years at college that will enable them to take laptops into tertiary education.

Vice-principal Alan Stevens believes that phase two of the wireless network will help establish a true connected learning community. "From this college we will then place aerials around each primary school and each village. And then from that aerial the next stage will be to consider home linksI coming back through our remote access server and then on to the Internet. But what we're really excited about is the intranetI we want people to feel they've got a direct link with our intranet and that the home link would eventually be every home."

A six-mile transmitting radius around the college would cover all the primary schools and a radius of 10 miles would take in the majority of local health centres.

Establishing, expanding and managing such a network is no mean feat and Stevens acknowledges that Sawtry's status as a technology college has been of great benefit. Any advice for future network builders? "Get your network backbone in place. Where people do little bits at a time there are always problemsI If you don't have that infrastructure you are managing a hungry monster. And the pace at which hardware and software develops means that you are having to run to stand still."

Principal James Stewart is sure that "teaching and learning styles will change dramatically as a result of these new resources, with the Internet as our window to the world and the intranet our central source of information for teachers and students alike".

The college is rightly proud of its pivotal role within the community and is adamant that new technology will only be employed within a specifically educational context. "What we've learned," says Stevens, "is to take responsibility for learning and not get hung up about the technology."

Many colleges focus on technology and lose sight of the needs of their pupils. Not so at Sawtry, where the demands of education and community drive technical innovation. Such a stance is not only commendable, it may well prove an exemplar for the educationists of the future.

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