Goodbye desk technology, hello robots

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Computers are history at hi-tech city learning centres. To capture pupils' imaginations, they need kit that is much more advanced. Chris Bunting reports

Nick Page peers through the door into a large room lined with computers. It is no ordinary school computer suite: the clapped out Trabants and Ladas of the digital world normally on view are absent. Instead, the low collective hum of the room's hard drives exudes a quiet machismo. But Page, director of the Excellence in Cities programme in Knowsley on Merseyside, is not impressed. He wrinkles his nose in disgust. "It's a computer room," he says. "Out of date. It's all got to go."

With a dismissive wave of his hand, he moves off down the corridor to meet the new star at Whiston and Prescot city learning centre: a programmable, robotic dog. As the dog preens itself at his feet, Page's equilibrium is gradually restored. Contentment spreads across his features. One of his centre managers explains: "This is the future. The children are used to the computers. They are old hat. They're bored of Windows. But these kind of robots, they'll stay after school to program these."

Since 2000, Knowsley, an authority which received high praise in its recent inspection report - has established city learning centres on the sites of three of its secondary schools. More than pound;3 million of government, European and council funding has been committed under the Excellence in Cities programme.

Page, a machine-gun raconteur, describes the borough as the "Manchester United of local education authorities" and himself as the "Cilla Black of Knowsley, bringing people together to try to start relationships". He believes that the centres are a vital tool in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country to convince the community that education is "important and possible".

"It is fair to say that some of the families we are dealing with have not only got parents who have been unemployed most of their adult lives but have got grandparents who were unemployed too. We are trying to bring a step change to this community and these centres can help us engage and capture the imagination."

The imagination of Adam Search, a 14-year-old pupil at Knowsley Hey school in Huyton, has certainly been captured. He was "shocked and amazed" by the millions of pounds of television studio equipment at the borough's newest city learning centre attached to his school. If the computer rooms and robots at Whiston and Prescot are impressive, the facilities at Huyton are beyond the aspirations of some of Britain's richest private schools. Pupils crowd around state of the art Digiwarp editing suites as classmates practise their presenting skills in a TVstudio that would be the envy of many a BBC producer. "I was lucky," says Adam, fiddling with a new tablet computer, a cross between a palm pilot and a PC, "I chose media GCSE before all this stuff arrived. We didn't know we would actually be using a studio.

Now everybody else in the school want to change to this."

But the city learning centre concept reaches far beyond gimmicky pupil motivation. The millions of pounds of technology would be hard to justify if that was the extent of the vision, says Page. Instead, they are intended as a way of introducing cutting-edge technology, and the flexible intellectual skills associated with it, to communities that might otherwise be dangerously ill-prepared for the demands of the modern economy.

The idea is to exercise "technological leadership". Classes are run for adults both inside and outside school hours. Computers and broadband connections have even been given away to families on condition that the parents are willing to be taught how to make the most of them.

Teachers also get a chance. The centres are used for in-service training and video-conferencing. They form a showplace where teachers can see technology they might later buy for their own schools. For example, Kirkby CLC, the third of Knowsley's centres, at Brookfield school, has been equipped with a cheap alternative to computerised whiteboards that its managers hope may catch on in local schools. The technology on offer generally is of such a high standard that local employers, including the Merseyside Police and the Jaguar car company, run training sessions and conferences at the centres.

There are 95 CLCs operating in Excellence in Cities areas across the country, with a further 10 being built. Up to pound;1.2 million in Government and European funding is available to build and set up a new centre, with pound;370,000 per year after that.

One concern raised about CLCs is that because they are all built in school grounds, access for other schools in the area is restricted. During my visit to the three Knowsley centres, there were large numbers of pupils from other schools in evidence and one group of adults being trained under the auspices of the local college. Local primary schools as well as secondaries were well-represented.

Page argues that basing centres in schools not only brings cost savings, for instance through the sharing of security and cleaning bills, but plays a crucial role in fostering a feeling of ownership of the centres by the local community. Without such a feeling, the millions of pounds of equipment being kept in a relatively deprived community would be at greater risk of vandalism or theft.

More importantly, basing the centres in schools ensures the maximum use of expensive resources. "All the schools participate in running the centre but, when it is not booked, it is sensible to allow the home school to use it. It would make no sense just to allow such equipment to remain idle," he says.

Perhaps the main challenge nationally is the race against the technology the CLCs are supposed to showcase. Keeping up to date will require a constant stream of funding.

Page has no illusion that government and European grants will be enough."It is crucial to our survival that we develop our own income stream.

Currently, we are generating about pound;5,000 a month from people like Jaguar using the facilities, but that is without trying." He is aiming to increase that to pound;35,000 a month, all of which will be reinvested.

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