Martin Whittaker finds out how girls-only computer clubs are ending a toys-for-boys culture
At a secondary school in Reading, girls are helping to overcome a common but unfair stereotype - that information and communications technology is the preserve of nerdy boys.
An after-school girls-only computer club meets two afternoons a week at Blessed Hugh Faringdon Catholic school. And it has proved so popular since its launch in October that half the girls in Years 7, 8 and 9 attend.
"Take-up has been phenomenal," says Dominic Tester, head of ICT. "It proves there has been a demand for this type of club.
"They like the fact that this is a girls-only area, and they don't feel hindered or pressured by boys in any way. One of the most frequent comments is that the boys aren't there taking charge."
After-school computer clubs for girls are being piloted in 26 primary and secondary schools in Reading, Slough, Kent and Medway in a scheme designed to boost the number of women choosing a career in information technology.
The project follows research by Mori which found that the sector was dominated by men; only 23 per cent of those working in it are women.
The study also highlighted negative perceptions of people who work in technology as "geeks", with "a trainspotter mentality", which put young people off a career in IT.
The research suggested that children found ICT lessons uninspiring, with too much emphasis on word-processing and spreadsheets. "Girls weren't getting interested," says Debbie Warren, the project's co-ordinator. "They found it boring. It didn't play to their strengths of communication, interaction and group working."
The computer clubs aim to make activities fun while improving basic IT skills. The sessions have been designed to appeal to girls aged 10 to 13, incorporating interests such as sport, TV, music and fashion. On joining, the girls get briefcases, glossy, well-produced folders and pens. A typical activity might involve setting up a fan club for a pop star, including creating animations and graphics for a website and producing a monthly newsletter.
In Reading, three secondary and three primary schools are running the clubs. In the secondary schools they have been over-subscribed and some are running two sessions a week. "At one school the girls were standing guard outside the classroom door and not letting the boys in because it was their club," says Ian Muir, an ICT consultant with Reading education authority.
He believes the clubs are making ICT exciting for girls in a way that classroom work often fails to do. "It's enrichment," he says. "And it's going to make a hell of a difference to what can happen in the classroom.
It also allows them to be creative, which girls are generally good at."
At Blessed Hugh Faringdon, girls started by designing labels and taking pictures of themselves to stick on their exercise books and folders. They have designed and printed a cover for a hypothetical teenage magazine, which involved learning to use desktop publishing software and developing graphics skills. Some girls have taken this further and produced their own magazine.
The club started with 70 girls, but word of mouth has swollen the numbers attending afternoon sessions to 108. The clubs are run by volunteer ICT staff, learning support assistants and parents.
Dominic Tester says he is already seeing the effects in lessons. "There has been a gradual culture change within the classroom since the club has been running. It's been a big boost in terms of confidence.
"The girls aren't quite as reticent or as hesitant to put forward their own ideas. They now see it as an engaging subject and are much more enthused than they had been."
The pound;2.8 million Computer Clubs for Girls pilot is funded by the South-east of England development agency and run by e-skills UK, the voice of employers on training in the ICT industry. "Computer clubs have always run in schools," says Debbie Warren. "We're not doing anything new in that regard. But they have always been boy-dominated, where one boy sits in front of a computer playing games, trying to kill the boy next to him. And girls don't see the point in that. But if you show them how they can produce their own music CDs, that's something they're interested in - they'll want to do it. If they can put their face on the front cover of a magazine, they'll want to do that, too."
There are plans to move on to a full trial in 100 schools across the south-east next year. The Department for Education and Skills has also invested almost pound;500,000 in plans for a national roll-out, and aims to make the clubs financially self-sustaining and to encourage IT professionals and other volunteers to help run them.
During the next 12 months e-Skills UK will be conducting an online consultation exercise among schools to contribute to the blueprint of the scheme. It has set up a registration page at www.e-skills.comconsultation-cc4g and is inviting schools in England to register. For further information, contact Chris Buss or Debbie Warren at e-Skills UK, tel: 020 7963 8920