Hard work is paying off for a school in the North-east with its unique, innovative, EU-funded project, writes Simon Finch
Dr Paul Kelley is headteacher at Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, Tyne amp; Wear - an ordinary school with average kids in an area with the usual problems and challenges. Yet something has been happening at this school which is far from ordinary.
Dr Kelley is on a mission. He has created the Students Across Europe Language Network ( ), a video- conferencing and multimedia learning project. It has clearly had a strong impact on student motivation, leading to dramatic improvements in modern language examination results.
These are taught using video-conferencing, the Internet and multimedia alongside more traditional teaching: the GCSE grades of more than 100 students in French were a grade higher than predicted by a scheme which compares students across the country using a range of identified variables.
Dr Kelley stresses that the school is simply trying ideas to raise achievement while ensuring a rigorous evaluation strategy can measure the results (a condition for receiving EU funding). All evaluations are external and analysis by Durham and Sunderland universities has identified significant improvement in performance across the ability range in modern languages.
The formal evaluation by Durham produced evidence that over a two-year period, students of French are significantly more likely to choose careers working with computers, involving a modern language, or choosing to work abroad.
Recognition for the work of Dr Kelley and his staff is evident in almost every government document concerned with raising standards and achievement. Monkseaton is featured in the government's Excellence in Schools video and the Green Paper, National Grid for Learning. And the school represented England for the Department for Education and Employment in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confe- rence Schools for the Future in Hiroshima, Japan. It was also featured by the European Union as an example of good practice at the European Parliament in Brussels.
Yet Dr Kelley maintains that they are doing "nothing special". All the technology and resources used in the project could be available to any school to replicate the significant grade improvements in their own students, he says.
Dr Kelley is modest about his role in this project. But this modesty is misplaced when you consider it was his dogged determination and hours of writing proposals and knocking on the doors of the European Commission in Brussels that finally culminated in financial support and Monkseaton becoming the only school in Europe to be involved in the European Community's Telematics Programme.
Last month, Dr Kelley and seven of his students went to the world's biggest telematics conference in Barcelona to show delegates from leading industries across Europe how telematics are used in Monkseaton to motivate students and raise achievement.
He is a master of understatement: "We use video-conferencing for a simple education purpose, such as people learning languages." He believes strongly that educators should provide students with the best learning experiences possible and subject all initiatives to detailed statistical analysis. Monkseaton has experimented with a range of teaching resources to "identify what's really going to add to the way students learn and measure the results externally".
This kind of enthusiasm and commitment to students is infectious. Sixth-form students are following Open University degree courses and gaining passes and distinctions in maths and science. Research Machines and Siemens are donating technology and expertise, and students who volunteered for an extra week of revision just before GCSE achieved almost half a grade higher in every subject when compared with a control sample of 50,000.
One would expect that student performance would increase as a result of any project delivered with the kind of enthusiasm and commitment evident at Monkseaton (this is known by researchers as the Hawthorne effect), especially when it has the headteacher's support. Dr Kelley again has the statistics to clarify this. At best, the Hawthorne effect would cause an improvement of 0.4 of a grade; the network has registered quantifiable grade improvements of 0.6 of a grade above this level and, in some cases, almost two grades in GCSE French over a two-year period.
The school is committed to language learning and, following the initial success of the video-conferencing, now has Language College status and further resources earmarked for language teaching. The students run the school's website - in English, French, German and Spanish. They are paired with peers in France, Germany and Spain, and are encouraged to use video-conferencing as often as the timetable will allow.
Perhaps the most innovative development is the school's introduction of BT charge cards. Students are given a phone card programmed with their own home phone number (for emergencies) and the home number of their peer tutor in the European country. All charges are billed to the school and this means that students can talk to their partner at any time they want at home or at school.
Little intervention is made by the teachers in what the students talk about or whether they are using the target language. Some students have explored other ways of using the video-conferencing, discussing art and holding up pictures for their peers to see and discuss. Some also send their homework as attached documents which are marked and returned, and this is a valid and valuable experience for all the students. A further feature of conferencing is that it can be recorded to video from the PC and reviewed by the students and teacher at school or at home.
The cost of such a project is not prohibitive. Until this year, all video-conferencing was taking place on a single 486 PC with and an ISDN high-speed line. The line is the largest cost, at around pound;4,000 per year. However, Dr Kelley points out that a single language assistant can cost a school more than twice that amount and, while video-conferencing is not intended to replace a language assistant, it puts the cost of such an effective learning resource into perspective.
Monkseaton is launching a digital video-on-demand facility on the computer network to give students access to BBC revision programmes and Open University learning materials. It will have more than 200 hours of video stored on a server (100 gigabytes), which can be accessed in a range of formats by students as part of a telematics multimedia revision programme.
It seems everything Dr Kelley touches turns to examination success, but the apparent ease disguises the hours of work and setbacks which accompany such innovation. "It's all pathetically simple-minded," he shrugs. "Get a rigorous evaluation structure, then experiment with the potential of ICT for learning. Start with the assumption that it will fail and ask: 'Does it entertain the children and do they learn?' "