Disability is no obstacle

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Children at a Glasgow special school are teaching theirable-bodied neighbours howto use computer technology. Julie Morrice reports

The first thing you notice about Richmond Park School in Glasgow is the computers. Most primary classes have one tucked away somewhere. At Richmond Park, they define the space. Where there are a couple of screens - in a corner of the room, forming an island in the middle of an open-plan area, squeezed in beside boxes of musical instruments - there is a learning zone, a classroom. Richmond Park has embraced information and communications technology with such enthusiasm that the two now seem inextricably bonded to one other.

Every child works on a computer for part of every day. In Primary 6 and 7, each child is given their own laptop which they can take home. Every morning, they download the electronic mail that has been sent to the school. Video-conferencing; using digital cameras and processing the results in HyperStudio; conducting a search on the Internet: it is all part of the normal day.

Richmond Park is a school for children with severe physical disabilities - one reason it is so hooked on technology. "It was dead easy for us - the rewards were so immediate," says Maggie Pollard, the headteacher. "If you have someone struggling with a great thick felt-tip pen and bits of cardboard, and half an hour later producing something approximating to their name, then using a keyboard and a screen is almost miraculous."

Some schools might have been satisfied with that, but Richmond Park has opened itself up to all possibilities of the new technology. ICT has become part of a school ethos that assumes everyone who comes through the doors, teacher or pupil, is there to learn. When the Apple eMates - those state-of-the-art, sexy green laptops - arrived at the school, the teachers did not pore over the manuals in the staffroom. Instead, the big brown boxes were delivered straight into the classroom. "The kids were opening them up and saying: 'Look what mine can do.' We learned about them together," says Maggie Pollard.

Now the school is sharing its way of working with mainstream schools. Four local primaries are taking part in an early literacy scheme. The Chrysalis Programme invites teachers, pupils and parents to a variety of in-service days and workshops in each other's schools.

When I visited Richmond Park, Christina Nolan's P7 class from Bishoploch Primary was there for a taster session, given by the P7s of Richmond Park. Grouped round the screens in twos, the kids were having a great time: the Richmond Parkers being given a chance to show off their mouse technique and techno know-how ("I've got a quicker way of doing that," said Charlene), and the Bishoplochers were delighted with the profusion of hi-tech equipment ("Is your school really rich?").

Teachers from Richmond Park have been working with P1, P2 and P3 classes in the four mainstream primaries, and have been bowled over by the enthusiasm of both pupils and teachers. While pupils have resorted to blatant flattery ("You've got lovely eyelashes, Miss") in order to get their work on to the computer first, teachers have become more relaxed about admitting they don't know a lot about ICT and are willing to learn together with their class.

"If you think of all the rubbings-out and rewritings that you have with jotters, and the messy work you end up with, for a lot of children the computer print-out is the first piece of attractive, quality work they've produced, " says Christine Talbot, a Richmond Park teacher. "It's great for their self-esteem."

ichmond PARK uses software such as Clicker and Storybook Weaver, packages which give pupils a free rein with menus of illustrations and ready-made phrases. This allows them to exercise their creativity while learning to read and write. Pupils write their own books, bound, illustrated stories that are put in the library and read by other pupils. Children who might sit and stare at a blank page for hours, come alive at the sight of all those interactive illustrations. It is, says Christine Talbot, a tremendous stimulus for writing.

Richmond Park has been using ICT for more than 10 years. Staff are convinced it works. Maggie Pollard has ensured that external assessments have recorded the rise in levels of achievement. She is passionate about technology and will admit no downside."What right do we have to make today's children learn in the way we were taught, just because we feel uncomfortable with something new?

"We use 2 per cent of our brain. There must be a gap in learning somewhere. Maybe if we let children use this powerful tool, we'll find the next generation is using 3 per cent."

Tactics Trends 98: Maggie Pollard and pupils from Richmond Park will demonstrate work from the Chrysalis Programme at a seminar on November 4, 1.10pm

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