Got a light Mac?

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Headteacher David Brown has - and he's not afraid to use it. And by September, under a groundbreaking local authority scheme, all teachers at his Isle of Man primary should be tapping away on Apple laptops. Meanwhile, down in East Sussex, the council is also developing a penchant for portables, reports Gerald Haigh.


Imagine this. It's the first day of your new job in a big secondary school and the deputy head has just presented you with a laptop computer. You're going to need it straight away, he explains, because you have to mark your register on it, and you will want to look at the noticeboard, which is on the school computer network rather than in the staffroom. When you open it up, you see that your head of department has already loaded a subject folder of worksheets, notes and presentations. "All I ask in return," says the deputy head, "is that you share your own ideas with us in the same way."

This is how it will be one day for every teacher in the developed world. At Ballakermeen community high on the Isle of Man, however, the future has already arrived, and it is deputy head Keith James who greets and equips all new teachers at his school.

Last spring, as a pilot scheme, the Isle of Man education department provided a laptop for every one of the 90 teachers in this 1,200-pupil school; by September the authority hopes that all 750 of the island's teachers will be similarly equipped. As part of the project, cabling for 8,000 network points was installed in the island's schools during the summer holiday last year. A teacher with a laptop can just plug into the network and access the Internet in almost any room in any school on the island.

The impact at Ballakermeen has been dramatic. So much so that when Annette Baker, head of languages, had to give back her laptop for some adjustments to be made, she felt bereft. "I was lost without it," she says.

Ms Baker uses a multimedia projector - every department in the school has one - to deliver slick, fast and funny German and French lessons. Graphics, words and images are projected on to a screen from her laptop, which she can control with a remote handset from anywhere in the room. Children are likely to be jerked to attention, for example, by a booming voice from Star Trek telling them, "There seems to be no sign of intelligent life anywhere". Ms Baker also does a session of Wer mochte MillionAr werden? (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) with appropriate graphics and sound effects.

Her style is lively and outgoing, and she makes the computer work for her. "I've always jumped through hoops to get children to enjoy what they're doing," she says. "With the laptop, it's easier."

The lessons are obviously just hi-tech versions of chalk and talk; when you look beyond the whizzy presentation, the material - vocabulary, grammar - is what earlier generations of young learners would have seen on blackboards. The technology though, adds pace because all the "blackboard" work is prepared in advance and is available on demand. And the on-screen wizardry grabs the pupils' attention better than any blackboard could. "It ups the status of the subject," says Annette Baker. "The boys like it, and it's always been a challenge to motivate boys in this subject."

The Isle of Man laptops project was the brainchild of the education department's ICT adviser, John Thornley. The department had for six years been encouraging teachers to buy computers, with various schemes which involved the department negotiating with suppliers and offering teachers interest-free loans. "It struck me that we should put our money where our mouth is, and give teachers what has become in our eyes a tool of the trade," he says. As a result, about 75 per cent of teachers on the Isle of Man own computers .

The department of education was determined to harness electronic communication to overcome the island's physical isolation. "The political will was there," says John Thornley, "and so was the expertise at education department and school levels."

And so, last April, the Ballakermeen pilot was born. But giving laptops to selected enthusiasts or volunteers is one thing. Giving them to all-comers, however, is hard work; those who are less computer-literate or simply unwilling have to be gently eased into their new world. Keith James, says the key is to ensure that certain important tasks can be carried out only on the computer. At Ballakermeen, for example, teachers have to use their laptops to mark the register. "I sold it to people on the basis that it would save time," says Mr James. "I also told them where we were going with it in terms of report-writing. People were quite happy with that, and once we got them to switch on and use them, it snowballed."

Once the administrative short cuts had been recognised, the other advantages quickly became apparent - notably the ease with which teachers can share information, ideas and resources. The shared English subject folder, for example, contains Shakespeare revision notes that can be updated at any time.

David Pryke, manager of Ballakermeen's learning resource centre, emphasises the importance to teachers of having access to resources such as CD-Roms and the Internet. "Remember, we're on an island. We've never had a wealth of resources. We've only had a really good bookshop for about a year."

Internal communication has improved, too, says Keith James. "We don't have to keep going into the staffroom to look for notices because there's a main noticeboard section on the network that is easily available on the laptop."

The learning process generated its own kind of camaraderie among staff. "It's not a hierarchical thing," says Mr James. "People will learn from whoever can tell them how to do something."

Teachers in other schools on the island are ready and waiting for their laptops. At Scoill Vallajeelt, a 320-pupil primary in Douglas, headteacher David Brown's laptop is crammed with school and personal business; he also uses it to communicate with other heads and with the local authority - "so much easier than posting 35 letters". He has encouraged the same approach among his teachers, using the school's extensive Apple network of 30 desktop machines (20 iMacs and 10 Performas) and 12 iBooks on a wireless network, all with Internet access. "They've tried and learned from each other," he says. "Now there isn't a single one that isn't competent on a computer. What they need now are laptops so they can work at home at times that suit them better."

Keith James has detected a pattern to the way that teachers adapt to laptops. "The first stage is to use it for admin, such as records, reports, registers," he says. "Then comes improving the quality of worksheets. The next stage is for them to use the computer to deliver lessons in the classroom." Which is, after all, what teaching is really about.


The population of the Isle of Man is about 72,000, most of which is concentrated in the main town of Douglas and neighbouring east coast towns. It continues to rise as workers are recruited from the UK; the financial services industry is growing, with government encouragement. Unemployment is low.

The Isle of Man is not part of the UK, but is a crown dependency with the Queen as head of state. The Tynwald - claimed to be the oldest parliament in the world - is responsible for all internal affairs.

Its department of education is responsible for 35 state primary schools and five comprehensives. The island schools follow the English national curriculum, with some additional local history and geography. The primary curriculum includes French from the age of seven. Manx-language teaching is offered on parental request; about 30 percent of pupils take it up.


By September 2000, all full-time teachers will have received a laptop computer and will be required to undertake training. The computers remain the property of the island's department of education, which pays no VAT.

Primary teachers will be supplied with Apple iBooks as Isle of Man primaries are all equipped with Apple Mac computers, but secondary teachers can choose either the iBook or a Compaq PC laptop. The computers will come with basic software including Office 2000. All teachers will be given their own e-mail addresses. The machines will be replaced every three years.


Essex teacher David Hawkins was recently visited by an insurance rep, who arrived carrying a laptop computer. "He does his job much better because of it," observed Mr Hawkins in a letter to The TES (February 4). And, as the teacher points out, the insurance man didn't have to pay 50 per cent towards its cost.

The portable computer has become an important working tool for thousands of people, including teachers. So why, asks Mr Hawkins, is the Government, under its Computers for Teachers scheme, asking teachers in England to pay up to 50 per cent of the cost of acquiring one of these mini marvels?

East Sussex county council evidently thinks the same way, for last year it decided to spend pound;2 million on providing laptops for its teachers. About one in three of the county's teaching force - 1,030 - struck lucky.

It was a bold decision, given that the authority could have spent the money in lots of other ways. However, this was seen as a long-term investment. "We want to give our teachers the best tools and training that we can in order to provide the best opportunities for our pupils," says Jeremy Birch, a member of the council's education committee.

The aim, says the council, is "to raise pupil attainment in numeracy, literacy and across the curriculum in key stages 1 to 4 and post-16". But there was also a political imperative, says East Sussex's assistant education officer, Matt Dunkley. "In 60 per cent of our Ofsted reports, ICT was mentioned as needing attention," he says. Having identified the problem, the authority quickly decided on the best way to deal with it. "We did a lot of research," says Mr Dunkley, "and it was clear that the best way to make change was to provide laptops for teachers. We also felt that by doing this we would be sending a message about valuing the teachers."

That seems to have worked, according to Eddie McCall, deputy principal of Claverham community college in Battle, which has received 19 laptops under the scheme. "In 35 years of teaching, I can't remember being given something like this. It's a great boost to self-esteem to have the authority say they're going to provide you with this tool of the trade."

It's also a boost to achievement in the classroom. At Pebsham community primary in Bexhill-on-Sea, for example, the visitor's eye is immediately caught by the beautiful colour science worksheets produced for reception classes by Sue Targett, some of them including pictures of the children taken with a digital camera. (The authority has handed out almost 250 cameras as part of the laptop scheme, with every school receiving at least one.) "I used to use the desktop machine in the classroom," Mrs Targett says, "but I didn't enjoy it. Getting the laptop changed my life." As well as producing worksheets, Mrs Targett does her planning and report-writing on her laptop. At Christmas she used it to write letters to her class. "They had given me presents and I sent thank-you letters with individual digital photographs of them in the nativity play."

She also uses her machine when teaching small groups of three or four children. "I have some early years software: a program for number and an animated alphabet." Using the laptop for small-group work, you can take the children anywhere. This is particularly useful for special needs sessions. For larger groups, a laptop can be linked to an interactive whiteboard or a multimedia projector. These are expensive, however, and the intermediate step is to use a large-screen television.

In Eddie McCall's school, one of the most interesting uses is in the gymnasium. Think laptops and PE, and you immediately think team lists, planning sheets and reports. PE teachers Vicky Neale and Danny Ockmore are certainly doing all that, but they have gone further, and are using the laptop and a digital camera to support examination work at key stage 4.

"Our GCSE syllabus has a section where children have to analyse performance," says Mr Ockmore. "We've been using the digital camera to photograph body positions in volleyball, such as the 'dig', where the player crouches with arms straight out in front. We use the laptop to put the pictures on a worksheet with questions, which the children do for homework. And the great advantage is that they are looking at pictures of their own classmates.

"We can look at any kind of movement. We could take the camera out on the rugby field. It allows you to freeze movement and talk immediately about performance."

Like many enthusiastic computer users, Mr Ockmore is already looking ahead. "With a digital camcorder we could do a lot more," he says. "And when we have Internet connection we'll have access to all kinds of relevant material."

East Sussex encourages its teachers to exchange resources with each other and with specialist teachers all over the county. This part of the programme will take time to develop, as teachers grow in confidence and overcome some of the technical problems, such as learning how to exchange images and diagrams. But the possibilities excite Mike Foyle, ICT and DT co-ordinator at Saxon Mount, a special school with 120 pupils in St Leonards-on-Sea. "I've always wanted to improve links with other schools, to share work and ideas with other DT teachers," he says.

The most striking aspect of the project is the way teachers have taken ownership of it and made their computers do what suits their own ways of working. They are all finding better ways of doing familiar tasks.

At Pebsham, for example, Year 4 teacher Debbie Haffenden came to an agreement with her class about how to record spelling test scores. "I was keeping a list in the register," she says, "but one child wanted to look back at her past scores. We talked about the best way of doing this, and the majority said they would like it in my computer, so when they asked me they could call up their name and look.

"I also felt it was important that they could see me using it in the classroom as an aid to my work, having it there like a notepad."

One thing that the laptop does not do - and every teacher agrees - is shorten the working day. Debbie Targett speaks for many when she says: "You may get the jobs done more quickly, but you just do much more."

Revolution in the south.

The East Sussex laptops forteachers scheme was launened in October 1999. Delivery ef macnines is expected 10 oe complete by the end of the spring term. Laptops are being allocated to schools according to numoer of staff the smallest primary will have at least one. The council has issued some guidelines asto who snould get priority spe- cial needs co-ordinators, for exampleyout toe final decision is down to the headteachers. All schools are also getting at least one digilal camera.

The scheme includes three training sessions: one day a month after receviog the computer, a half-day two months later, and a mopping up' twilight session acouple of months after that.

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