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Jean Slights and Sally Miner had a problem familiar to almost every primary schoolteacher. What could they do to keep Year 6 motivated when the Sats tests finished? They needed a project that would keep pupils active and prove useful when they got to secondary school. The two teachers decided to study communication using resources and work created by BT. The materials focus on developing good skills, in line with the emphasis on speaking and listening in the national literacy strategy.
Work started with BT's education officer Dave Hancock giving the children a talk about phone lines and how phone bills are made up, but there was a lot more on offer. BT also provides free classroom materials, plus advice and support from its own volunteers and other experts.
Pupils were hooked and other lessons were suspended to make room for the project. "The children are really into it because there's so much of themselves in it and not so much teacher intervention," says Ms Slights.
"It's hands-on, there's role play and group work and it's off timetable.
It's so different from Sats testing, and it's going to be useful for the rest of their lives."
BT's education programme is three-pronged: a roadshow visits schools, free materials and the BT Volunteers scheme. There are also cash awards for innovative programmes devised by schools.
When the roadshow came to to Ryders Hayes school in Walsall, the theatre group Crag Rats performed Put Upon Jo, a play about bullying.
"It was a most moving piece of drama," says Ms Slights. "Many of the children were in tears by the end of it." The actors then conducted workshops on how better communication can help to tackle issues such as bullying, and on other themes, such as body language and voice projection.
BT's Talkdog magazine cartoonist John Rowley worked with pupils on simple cartoons, looking at how we communicate through facial expressions. And the pupils made a video diary, using cameras lent by BT and then edited by the company.
Children can develop their own ideas about communication by watching and discussing good and bad models. The Muddles and Crystals DVD shows the exploits of two contrasting families in a situation-comedy setting that appeals to the children's sense of humour, says Ms Slights.
A second DVD, Communication Skills for Young Citizens, develops debating skills and clarifies the principles of good communication through such topics as whether David Beckham should really earn so much more than a teacher, or whether animals should be used for medical testing. At Ryders Hayes, pupils established rules to give everyone the opportunity to have a say working from amodel communication charter from BT (see box, below right).
Highlights of last year's project at Ryders Hayes are on the website created for the school by BT (www.ryders-hayes.ik.org).
In addition to the roadshow - which has gone into 11,000 schools since 1999 - and the free materials, BT's nationwide network of 4,000 volunteers visit schools to work with staff and pupils. Made up of current and retired BT employees and their friends and families, the volunteers are organised into local clubs, where they receive training for their work in schools. They can spend two to three hours per month of paid work time on volunteering.
Using their ICT expertise, they help staff and parents set up websites, use software and equipment such as interactive whiteboards. They also assist teachers with the free materials, which Dave Hancock says have a much better take-up when they are demonstrated.
Vicky McDermott, a BT volunteer and club leader, really enjoys the work, especially once a relationship becomes established with a school. "The children expect to see you, so (the issue of) communication stays on the agenda," she says. "They have good examples of the speaking and listening they've done when you come back."
She has found it rewarding to see how children develop using the communications charter material. "The children are turning into young adults," she says. "At first some of them might just grunt at you, but by the end of the programme they're really keen to put their views across.
"It's really interesting to see how children feel about things," she says.
"It's often the first time they've put their own ideas across rather than following the herd."
And BT staff, especially aspiring managers, find that working with people in other organisations helps develop their own skills, making it a win-win situation all round, says Ms McDermott. Their training as volunteers can be slanted to their own needs, such as giving Powerpoint presentations.
But it is only recently that speaking and listening have gained more prominence. Unlike in many other societies, British education has given more weight to writing than talking.
In Culture and Pedagogy: International Comparisons in Primary Education, Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge university examined the ways in which talk is used in schools in England, France, the US, India and Russia.
Although talk is often used here to develop social confidence, in terms of learning, it is primarily a way of giving instructions and checking understanding. Other cultures give it a bigger role in learning and cognitive development.
Professor Alexander believes teachers should help children learn more though speaking and listening, by creating structures in which they can listen to each other, give considered replies and build their understanding through extended talk. He calls it "dialogic teaching".
And good conversation cannot start too soon. Following concerns in Stoke on Trent about the numbers of young children starting school with communication difficulties, the local education authority joined with the local primary care trust and other public and voluntary bodies in the Stoke Speaks Out project.
More than 100 Year 5 pupils attended the Pass It conference, organised by the National Literacy Trust at Stoke City Football Club. They questioned footballers and others about the importance of communication in their jobs.
Some children were so taken with the experience that they re-enacted it in assembly, says speech therapist Janet Cooper.
BT has worked with people in Stoke for many years because of their commitment to improving communications skills, says Dave Hancock. "We're looking for people who are passionate about trying to make a change," he says. "We want our programme to be driven by the education sector rather than us, and to find ways of getting the sector to have more influence on the ways we spend our money."
BT can also help pupils gain understanding of the world of work.
Work-related learning is an entitlement at key stage 4. Pupils visiting one of BT's call centres can get a flavour of the workplace by meeting people at work. While they can get technical details from careers literature and job descriptions, observing the pressures and conditions at work at first hand gives them a fuller understanding of what it means to be at work.
Information on BT's education programme and free materials including communication skills at www.bt.comeducationtesJohn Rowley cartoons, see www.seemycartoons.com