Douglas Blane visits a special school in East Ayrshire where playing with computers and other modern equipment masks a serious educational purpose
There is a scene in the Steve Martin comedy My Blue Heaven in which his character, a former gangster on the US witness protection programme, gives uptight federal agent Rick Moranis an uninhibited demonstration of the merengue, a Latin American dance that makes the tango look like a slow waltz. "Yo* gotta learn to loosen up," he tells him as he throws his equally unrestrained female partner around, "and have a little fun."
Teachers at Park School in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, heartily endorse the sentiment and have booked a merengue instructor for the afternoon. After all, it is the last week of the summer term.
The trouble is, some of the youngsters in the computer suite are having so much fun already they are reluctant to leave - and nobody is going to make them. Exotic steps might come in useful on the dance floor but computer skills will stand them in good stead everywhere, and having fun is a means to an end.
"If you ask the kids what they like doing on the computers a lot of them will say playing games," says Bernadette Casey, who teaches secondary level information and communications technology. "Often they don't even realise there's an educational element to what they're doing, which is great. It means they're learning without trying."
The school's pupils - more than 100 of them, aged five to 18 - have moderate learning difficulties. The school is particularly well-equipped for its size, with two dozen computers, 16 Internet connections, scanners, digital cameras and a data projector. It is also well stocked with software, including talking books, drawing packages, encyclopaedias and reference works, and programs for language, number, keyboard, social and life skills.
Depute headteacher Tom Nisbett, who used to work for the former Scottish Council for Educational Technology and has considerable experience of developing and using educational ICT, is enthusiastic about its benefits.
"Like sport and music, ICT is a great vehicle for inclusion," he says. "It lets our youngsters access society, gives them confidence and practical skills and a way to show their strengths."
In addition to the two ICT periods timetabled each week for secondary pupils, ICT is an integral part of the curriculum. "We have computers in every classroom, and all our teachers have had the New Opportunities Fund training and are comfortable with technology," says Mr Nisbett.
Creating in sound and vision rather than being reliant on text is particularly appealing to the children. "Something that's proving very popular is www.think.com, an online schools community that East Ayrshire has joined. It's like an interactive newspaper where pupils create pages, take part in quizzes and questionnaires and put up profiles. A number of English schools are involved but we're the first in Scotland."
The school's computer clubs, run at lunchtime for the young ones and in the evenings for the older pupils, are very popular.
In the computer suite, 16-year-old Kevin shows off his own webpage, with an interesting picture of himself talking to a couple of adults. "That's me when I was in Lourdes not long ago," he says. "It was really nice. We went to Mass and saw loads of different people, a lot of them worse off than me.
"I didn't have the digital camera with me though, so when I got back I used this scanner to get the photos on to the computer."
He and his friend, Stuart, confidently demonstrate how to use the scanner beside their computer.
Nearby, Michelle and Scott are keen to explain what they are up to, while Heath is studying the digital photographs he took on the school's sports day, selecting some to keep by transferring them to hard disc.
Courtney's computer is a blue iBook which she can take home with her. She is typing in large, easily-read letters while it talks to her in an American accent.
The school staff is kept up-to-date by the technology team, whose members go to shows such as BETT and now SETT. "Yo* go around dozens and dozens of stalls," said Ms Casey, "but it only takes one or two things you've never seen to make it worthwhile. The interactive whiteboards they showed us last year are fantastic and I could think of all sorts of ways we could use them with the kids. They were a bit too expensive but the price is coming down all the time and in a few years I expect we'll all be using one."
Tom Nisbett will present a session on Inclusive ICT on September 19 and 20 at 11.30am