14th March 2003 at 00:00
Outside working hours, northern soul, Western art and Cornish surfing underpin Sean O'Sullivan's busy life. Back in the classroom, a good part of it is spent at Frank Wise School in Banbury - a special needs school that is gaining a considerable reputation, some of that due to Sean's work.

Of one of his influences, UK ICT "guru" Professor Stephen Heppell, Sean says: "He has shown consistency in valuing what children have to say." That could now be used to describe Sean himself.

Another big influence is American Roger Wagner, who developed the software program HyperStudio. Sean heard Wagner speak at a BETT show seminar. "He gave an inspiring talk about media literacy, opening up the idea of using multimedia. Although the talk was focused on the mainstream it was easy to how it could apply to our children with severe learning difficulties.

"It was a major thought change. We could see that children could do things for themselves rather than following prescriptive programs."

For Sean, ICT is all about creativity, about using software tools that minimise the blocks to children's learning. "What has happened in recent years is that software has become easier to use, more intuitive and that makes it much better for our pupils," he says. "We don't want software that constantly asks students to jump through hoops. Now it is easier to get to the point of a task."

One of Sean's former pupils, Simon, taught him a great deal. He was one of the first pupils to use digital video and Sean saw that it opened up high levels of confidence in a pupil who had been shy, withdrawn and poorly motivated.

"He had serious speech difficulties and as a result of that he felt that people were negative towards him and didn't really value him," says Sean.

"Simon began to use HyperStudio and gradually realised he could do it, take control of it. With digital video he was even more confident."

He says Simon practically taught himself how to edit and used it as a way of communicating and a means to talk about other areas of the curriculum.

He also took on responsibilities and became more social, gaining a great sense of himself.

To a visitor's eye, Frank Wise School appears to be very well resourced, but Sean points out that their LEA is not overly generous with funding for this type of school.

"They are not mean but they are not top of the league. Like most special schools there is a level of generosity in the local community that provides some funds but those funds go into capital projects. Recently, we had to build our own hydrotherapy pool. That cost us a quarter of a million pounds."

"What we spend on ICT is what we get from the LEA. Any school could do what we have done if they had our priorities."

Each class in the school has a basic set-up of hardware and software. They all have an iMac computer with an integral touch-screen, keyboards with lower-case lettering and switch interfaces so that pupils who need to can operate them with simple switching. Every computer is linked to the network and through that to the internet. There is a wireless network in each room, so teachers who have an iBook laptop are not restricted by location. Every class can use a screen on which to project children's work.

Every child has a VHS tape for their record of achievement and a MiniDisc for sound recording. AppleWorks is used throughout the school and HyperStudio for multimedia work. Interaction is seen as important and the level can be enhanced by the fact that they have choice over what they are doing.

"They work not from our choice but theirs," says Sean. "They are not limited by our way of presenting the world to them. ICT is a wonderful vehicle for enabling children to improve their work without constantly criticising them.

"You don't have to tell them that something is wrong. They don't have to go all the way back to the beginning. You can engage with them in the process of their creation.

"One of the key things with our children, probably the key thing, is developing their ability and motivation to communicate. Open-ended, easy-to-use tools help them to demonstrate their understanding and their ability to communicate to you, to me, to their peers and to the wider community.

"That is intrinsic to their independence. The ICT tools give us the chance to develop communication in a very natural way. When children are engaged in a task, they are so engrossed that communication can be spontaneous and non-threatening. It's just one of the ways that ICT is a great enabler."

And the future? "We want to ensure that what our children are achieving is recognised much more within our local community and further afield," he concludes. "There are no technical wizards here. We want to give the message: anyone can do these things."

Tips for teachers

* Believe that your pupils have something to say and are able do things for themselves rather than simply follow a prescriptive program

* Remove barriers to learning. The point of using software tools should be to minimise the blocks to learning

* Encourage collaboration and communication - open-ended, easy-to-use tools help pupils demonstrate understanding and boost communicating with their peers and teachers in a natural way

* Try and secure an audience for your pupils and their work

* Don't fool yourself that you've found the definitive answer - what will work for one child may not work for another RUNNER UP

Stuart Randall

Stuart Randall is IT co-ordinator at Newfield School, Blackburn

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