Dorothy Walker talks to Dave Walmsley, ICT pioneer and head of Jeff Joseph Sale Moor Technology College
Dave Walmsley might admit to "skating on the surface of the technicalities", but when it comes to using ICT to turn round the flagging fortunes of a school, he can claim true expertise.
Walmsley is head at Jeff Joseph Sale Moor Technology College in Manchester, which eight years ago was "a backstreet secondary modern where children were appealing to get out". Today they are clamouring to get in, attracted to a school which has made powerful use of ICT to re-invent itself and raise standards in the classroom. The achievement was recognised in this year's ICT in Practice awards, when Walmsley was a runner-up in the Secondary Leadership category.
He discovered the power of ICT in 1994, when the school became one of the first technology colleges in the country, and began a rapid expansion of its ICT facilities. "Trafford is one of the few fully selective authorities, and 35-40 per cent of children go to grammar schools," says Walmsley, who spent many years as a grammar school teacher before arriving at Jeff Joseph as deputy head in 1990. "We had to find a way of transforming the school - changing our image from the place you went to if you failed the 11-plus."
The first step in the ICT strategy was to replace the school's 25 BBC computers with a suite of Acorns, equipped with graphics software for the art department. Three more computer rooms were added, complete with state-of-the-art Nimbus machines.
It soon became apparent that not only was the new technology enhancing the school's image, it was also beginning to give students an advantage in the jobs market. Walmsley says: "In the early days we focused on the delivery of ICT as a skill - a skill that other schools weren't providing. Colleges were telling us that we produced students with excellent basic ICT skills - young people they were able to take on."
Walmsley was appointed head in 1996, and the new facilities were enhanced when Jeff Joseph became one of the first schools to have a high-speed link to the internet, achieved via the network of the Technology Colleges Trust.
The school began to build on its reputation for developing ICT skills, setting its sights on becoming a centre of technological expertise, and winning accreditation from Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle. "It has given our students tremendous career opportunities in a major gap in the skills market," says Walmsley.
However, he believes it is becoming increasingly difficult to equip today's students for careers, because of the failure of the qualifications system to keep pace with technological developments or the needs of employers.
"There are so many exciting, engaging things the students could be doing - multimedia editing, for example. But the vocational ICT qualifications are all about things like word processing: design your visiting card, annotate the changes and see if you can describe the font sizes.
"At the other end of the technical scale, there is the high-order plumbing of systems - systems design, network management and maintenance. But we have not solved the problem of how to fund professionally-based qualifications. We need to cut through the bureaucracy and snobbery - the belief that somehow a GCSE in Greek or Latin is more important than a Microsoft user's certificate at distinction level."
New initiatives include setting up a community house on the local council estate, providing ICT facilities linked to the school's wireless network.
Walmsley is also equipping every classroom with an interactive whiteboard, and says: "Whiteboards can revolutionise teaching. It was a breakthrough to watch a former PE teacher teaching history with a whiteboard, and realising what a stimulus it could be."
He still remembers his growing sense of excitement in the late 1990s when he realised how ICT could be used to support learning across the curriculum.
But he admits that, even today, more has to be done to help teachers achieve that goal. "We need massive investment in a 'cinematic approach' to learning - things that will pin children's ears back, and help break down knotty problems in subjects like maths, where children get stuck and disillusioned. Teachers cannot produce anything with the 'wow' factor that the commercial market can achieve. If we are really serious about making today's technology work powerfully to capture the imagination, that is where the investment has to go."