Early years is not an area most people associate with ICT, much less innovation in ICT. But it is no exaggeration to say Gamesley Early Excellence Centre, near Glossop, Derbyshire, has helped redefine the use of technology with early years - and it has little to do with computers.
Cathy Jones and Carole Bennett lead ICT at the centre, threading it through all areas of the foundation curriculum. Every device they can think of is called into use - there are karaoke machines, electronic organs, tape recorders, barcode readers, scanners, simple organisers, walkie-talkies, metal detectors, digital microscopes, programmable toys, telephones, a small sensory room, touch-screen monitors, camcorders, scanners, webcams - and all hardware is adapted to be suitable for under-fives. "Where on earth did you get that?" asks one amazed visitor looking at the closed-circuit television set-up. "Bamp;Q," Carole replies sweetly.
Such widespread use of technology mirrors the outside world. Cathy says:
"Children see people getting money out of holes in the wall, programming the video recorder, using the washing machine, security cameras - everything now has a chip in it. Technology is as threaded through their lives as anything else, so we thread it through the curriculum."
One of the most startling things they encourage children to do is "dissect" technology such as old and broken clocks, watches and video recorders; watching a four-year-old take apart a video recorder is as absorbing for the onlooker as it is for the child.
The sceptic will ask: "But what are children learning?" Carole says: "They are using language, learning new words, new terms. They are developing fine motor skills. There is mathematics in learning about colours, the size of things, the proportions, sizing the screws they remove, the length of wires. At the ages of three and four children need to learn to concentrate, persevere, to work collaboratively. Then there are the physical skills of using tiny screwdrivers and spanners. They can even create pieces of art with what they have taken out."
Dissection has even been used as a homeschool link, with a semi-dissected recorder being taken home in a carrier bag because the child didn't want to stop work. "Children don't learn unless it is fun and takes their interest," says Carole.
There is something of a missionary zeal about the centre's work. Carole stresses the importance of three and four-year-olds learning through play and highlights the injustice of giving nursery and reception classes the oldest computers or no computers at all. "Most schools work from the top of the school down. Here we believe we should work from the three and four-year-olds up."
Anxious to show that ICT is just a part of the work, headteacher Lynn Kennington points out that a recent Ofsted inspection did not focus on the ICT: "They were more interested in our creativity and the way we have developed links with parents." But Lynn is very grateful for the Becta award. "It was so forward-thinking of the judges to give us this award.
With all this about valuing early years, it demonstrated that an organisation like Becta values this phase and also it says others should value it too. This award is a great, big arrow pointing at early years saying, 'Remember'."
Tips for teachers
* Children learn so much before they are five - why not about technology too?
* Look around. ICT is not just computers
* Work holistically - thread ICT through all areas of learning
* Start small. Get a digital camera and use it to capture the process of learning
* A curriculum is about giving children tools for life. ICT is just one of those tools
Julia Ipgrave is assistant headteacher at Uplands Junior School, Leicester
John Ingram is a consultant at Easington and Seaham Education Action Zone