Patrick Kelly is wowed by Perins, a school that has implemented a wholesale shift to intensive use of technology
Tucked away in the rolling countryside of Hampshire, New Alresford is an unlikely site for a hi-tech revolution. But step inside Perins - the local community school - and you find yourself in a creative buzz that would not seem out of place in Silicon Valley.
Teachers are tapping away on laptops everywhere - in empty classrooms, staff rooms, the school kitchen, even in the gym and the sports field. They use them for administration, for creating worksheets, carrying out assessments, downloading departmental minutes and consulting databases.
Virtually all communication is by email - and it is a rare sight to see teachers humping heavy files from one place to another. From next term the entire school will be wireless enabled - so finding a socket will be a thing of the past, too.
Presiding over this digital transformation is headteacher Janice Bernard, who professes to be a technical innocent but has already ensured that ICT has made an indelible mark on teaching, learning and relationships with the wider community.
Perins, an 880-pupil mixed comprehensive, is already popular with local parents and has a good Ofsted report and superb exam results behind it. But Janice believes that ICT can spur the school to even greater successes.
"The way pupils learn and teachers teach is going to be revolutionised by ICT," she says. "It allows us to create a type of education much more suited to individuals' needs."
It's a vision that is sustained by an extraordinary level of enthusiasm and commitment, going way beyond the zeal of Janice or even her head of ICT, Gideon Williams. This is a school chock-full of ICT champions, with everyone fully committed to the concept of a "whole-school approach" to using information technology in their work.
Perins invested heavily in an extensive training and development programme for teachers - starting with a survey of existing computer skills. Then each teacher was set individual ICT training targets as part of the performance management regime and now each department has to meet an ICT target. Gideon was given a full-time network manager and enough time out from classroom teaching to be on hand to assist other teachers with their ICT worries and ideas.
The results are dramatic. Creativity with computers is the watchword here and many teachers have found new and interesting ways to save time and enhance their teaching through ICT. One looked at comparative data for girls and boys in one class - then shared the information with colleagues via the network. Another, who doubles as the school press officer, types press releases, complete with pictures scanned in from a digital camera, then emails them direct to local newspapers. Heads of year type up notes of meetings with parents and generate instant letters home. Pupils are busy designing a Shakespeare website as part of a link-up between the English and history departments. Virtually all internal information and quite a lot of communications with parents who have online access come via email.
Even in PE and drama - where the "nerd count" might be considered on the low side - they are keen on their computers. "There are so many good teaching materials on CD-Rom and the net - playwriting workshops, e-books , programs on video editing," says Angela Mackie, head of the drama department. She points to the enthusiastic take-up of the technical and lighting side of drama - largely because the school has computer-controlled programs to do the work.
And then there's director of PE, Lynne Carter: "We use IT equipment to collect and analyse distancetime, speed time and graphs of pupils'
movements," she says. "This boosts pupils' understanding of speedacceleration through graph matching exercises and acts as an incentive to performance on the field."
The cutting edge is maintained by a staff think-tank which brings together not just technophiles but down-to-earth thinkers who demand workable solutions to real problems, according to assistant head Colin Forrest-Charde.
Possibly the most revolutionary idea they have come up with is the use of mind-mapping software to tease out the individual learning styles of pupils. This information is shared among teachers and with the pupils themselves - enabling programmes of work to be tailored more closely to their needs.
"The potential here is enormous," says Janice. "We could eventually teach students out of key stage or out of age group, supporting or challenging them in ways that match the way they learn."
Perins is not keeping any of this to itself. It believes in spreading the word to other schools as well. Perins is already the hub of an ICT network with six feeder primary schools. But the school's horizons spread far beyond the rolling Hampshire hills. As a specialist sports school it is at the centre of a network of sports colleges in the south of England and, following a British Council-backed trip to South Africa earlier this year, Janice's next step is to establish an online relationship with South African schools.
"We are just scratching the surface really - the possibilities are endless," she says.
* Invest in training. Carry out an audit of skills and create individual learning programmes for all staff.
* Invest in support. Give your ICT head enough time to think creatively.
* Sign up governors and parents. Get them to agree to a five or 10-year plan for development and find the necessary funds.
* Allow staff "ownership" of ICT by responding to their ideas. Fit ICT solutions to teaching and learning. problems - not vice versa.
* Adopt wireless technology - it will allow you to use laptops anywhere.
* E-mail (Microsoft software)
* Mindmanager. Trial some mind-mapping software at www.mindjet.comuk
* Website design from www.bravenet.com
* Free software from Hot Potatoes at http:web.uvic.cahrdhalfbaked
* www.puzzlemaker.com has a wealth of puzzles on many curriculum topics.