The global village people
Brenda Bigland, headteacher of Lent Rise Combined School in Buckinghamshire, is fond of relating how she overheard a Year 2 girl in the playground telling her mother that she had spoken to a real live astronaut at school. "How many times have I told you not to tell fibs?" was her mother's response.
But, on this occasion at least, the six-year-old was not fibbing. She had indeed spoken to an astronaut, brought live to her school from NASA by means of a video-conferencing screen. As part of their project on space, she and her classmates had been able to put their own questions to the astronaut - for example, how do you go to the loo when you're in space? - and to chat to him as if he were right there in the classroom.
This was no one-off event for Lent Rise. The school firmly believes that video-conferencing widens the scope of the classroom so effectively that this new learning tool is employed right across the curriculum with children from four to 11 years.
In the past few years, video-conferencing has become an integral part of everyday school life at Lent Rise. On the day of my visit, a group of Year 4 pupils are confidently quizzing an expert from UltraLab, the technological research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University. They want to know about recent developments, to help them with their media project.
The children scribble notes on their clipboards while a genial-looking man in a yellow shirt and braces leans out of a large television screen to answer their questions and talk them through the latest in laptop design.
"It's good because you can see him and you can ask questions and he can answer them," explains eight-year-old Sam. "If he has something to show you, he can. You couldn't do that on a mobile phone."
When the live session is over, the children talk enthusiastically about their previous experience of video-conferencing, and recall their work from last year in impressive detail. Rhianna, eight, remembers some of the symbolism in Tudor portraiture, discussed during a conference with a specialist from the National Portrait Gallery. Catriona, eight, is still enthused by the dinosaur bones she saw during a video-conference with the Natural History Museum: "The dinosaur skulls had extra holes in them, not just holes for the eyes, so that their bones wouldn't be so heavy," she explains.
Ms Bigland says the video-conference is like giving children their own special tour guide. "It can't bring dinosaur bones into school for them, but this way I can bring in a resource that makes it all come alive for the children."
It is not, she adds, that video-conferences are a substitute for going to a museum or gallery in person; the school still organises termly visits. But trips are costly for many families and require substantial organisation, whereas a well-planned video-conference comes for little more than the price of a phone call.
Lent Rise is a school rich in new technology. Each classroom has its own interactive whiteboard. Today, these are being used by older children to manipulate subordinate clauses, while younger ones write out their spellings - "boot" "hoot" and so on. Digital cameras are also plentiful, and these are currently helping key stage 1 pupils recreate images from their dreams in order to make storyboards.
Even the nursery has its own bank of computers and an early years website.
A new cyber cafe (computers, but no food) has opened here this term. Pupils can occupy themselves during lunchtimes, and are supervised by parents.
Ms Bigland insists, though, that her staff should not rely too heavily on ICT and that they should make sure that technological applications are fit for purpose. She is a recent convert to the ICT educational world.
"My 18-year-old son taught me how to put together my first PowerPoint presentation," she explains. She has since become a great champion of ICT in school, and is always eager to seize new learning opportunities.
The school installed its first computer suite six years ago. Two years later, Ms Bigland chanced upon a leaflet from Questmark (www.questmark.co.uk) in Nottingham advertising video-conferencing. She had seen video-conferencing operating in the business world and was convinced that it had something to offer schools - especially a school such as Lent Rise, where a third of pupils have special needs. Questmark agreed to provide equipment and training. In return, Lent Rise would help show what could be done.
"Video-conferencing is a powerful tool, particularly for a challenging clientele like ours," she says. "It enhances provision. It helps develop children's skills in speaking and listening, and it helps prepare them for the world of work."
Last Christmas, a class of four-year-olds met Santa Claus in Lapland thanks to video-conferencing. They asked him questions about his life in Lapland and sang to him and his elves.
"It really got their imaginations going," says class teacher Jillian Watson. "And it helped them with dialogue, taking it in turns to speak, and developing their own ideas."
Last year, eight and nine-year-olds linked up on four screens with children from four schools around the world - in France, Texas, Chicago and Brazil - and all the pupils practised their French together.
Rebekah Rees, a Year 4 teacher, says video-conferencing encourages her pupils "to become independent learners - because they come up with the questions and they lead the conference, with me supporting them". Even the shyest pupils, she says, have been keen to take part.
Simon Ashby, deputy head and video-conferencing co-ordinator, says:
"Children just love being able to talk to people who are only a TV screen away but may be on the other side of the world."
The school's video-conferencing contacts with organisations willing to talk to pupils have burgeoned - from just two in the first year to a dozen or more regular contacts, including the National Maritime Museum, NASA and the National Portrait Gallery as well as occasional ones including the Jorvik Centre, the Indian Embassy and the children's charity Barnardo's.
This term children will link up with their MEP in Brussels and a French-speaking MEP to practise their French conversation. On the day of my visit, representatives from Hitachi were at Lent Rise to establish a new link with a school in Japan in which webcams will be used to bring together pupils from the two schools.
"We're always on the look-out for new possibilities," says Simon Ashby.
"You can teach a subject the same way each year, but if you've suddenly got a new contact, it keeps things interesting and lively."