Lap of luxury

7th January 2000 at 00:00
The TES wants to see every teacher equipped with a laptop computer this year. Gerald Haigh hears teachers explain why these mini marvels are a must-have tool of the trade

First it was Walkmans. Then mobile phones. These days the gadget of choice for growing numbers of commuters is the laptop computer. But for teachers they are far more than status symbols; increasingly, they are becoming essential work tools.

Over the next few weeks the Government will start delivering on its pledge to issue a free laptop to every primary and secondary head in England and Wales appointed during the current school year. And if the new Computers for Teachers initiative really takes off, it could be goodbye grimy register book and hello gleaming screen for thousands of classroom teachers as well.

In Scotland three times as many classroom teachers as expected have applied for a pound;200 subsidy to help buy a personal computer or laptop under the Computers for Teachers initiative. A massive 4,800 teachers, 10 per cent of the total, applied for 1,500 rebates and got a surprise end-of-term present when Peter Peacock, Scotland's deputy minister for children and education, approved them all. Delighted by the teachers' enthusiasm, he said he believed their profession "should be the one with the greatest ownership of personal computers".

Meanwhile, in Christmas week, the Welsh Assembly's education secretary, Rosemary Butler, announced that 165 Welsh primary schools and every secondary head would receive a multimedia laptop in the new year.

And next week the Government will announce a "substantial discount" (minimum pound;200) for teachers in England. But The TES wants it to go further and is calling for all teachers to be equipped with a laptop by the end of this year. Editor Caroline St John Brooks believes that personal, mobile ICT equipment is essential for a modern teaching profession.

"We are calling on the Government to recognise the needs of every single teacher," she said, launching the campaign this week. "Experience shows that owning your own computer is the quickest and most effective way of getting comfortable with the new technology."

Evidence is strong that, given a choice, many teachers would opt for a sleek, portable machine over its daunting desktop sibling. The Portables for Teachers project, run by the Department for Education and Employment and the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) between 1996 and 1999, revealed widespread enthusiasm for laptops. More than 11,000 teachers from nearly 5,500 schools in England received multimedia portable PCs with Internet access and CD-Roms. Ninety-five per cent of the participants agreed that the computers had improved their teaching; 90 per cent said their schools had benefited; and the vast majority came out of the scheme with their confidence and competence in ICT significantly improved.

When you get the laptop bug, you get it bad. Take Jo Episcopo, a class teacher at St Giles junior school in Exhall, Warwickshire. In her second year of teaching, she, like the school's other six full-time teachers, has been using a Toshiba laptop since the start of the 1999 autumn term. The effect has been dramatic. "I do more work," she says, "and I enjoy it more. Rather than sitting writing by hand, it's so much better to write on screen and edit." There are more practical considerations, too. "I used to take a big red box home every night. I don't any more."

Jo Episcopo uses her computer for planning lessons ("I've recreated the children's assessment sheets on the laptop and learned how to change the columns and organise the data") and in the classroom itself ("for worksheets, for creating cloze procedure exercises and for work in literacy and numeracy"). It's also a mobile library. "I wanted pictures of Greek coins," she says, "and I found them on the British Museum website. I printed them out and passed them round the class. And in art lessons, if I'm doing a topic I can look up prints of artists' pictures and download them to show in class."

Adrian Moulding, head of art at Dane Valley county high school in Congleton, Cheshire, also uses the Internet to find works of art. He has his own personal Dell laptop (his two colleagues share a laptop from the Becta scheme). When he wanted to show his Year 7 pupils examples of the work of sculptor Niki deSaint Phalle he downloaded images from a website "and created a whole scheme of work".

Mr Moulding's pupils also use the machine to manipulate photographs taken with a digital camera. "That's becoming one of the main uses," he says. "They take photographs, put them into the computer and play around with the images."

As well as being an invaluable classroom resource, the Dane Valley Dell is the art department's secretary and organiser. "Everything is on there - minutes of meetings, staff reviews, set lists, target-setting," says Mr Moulding.

Like many others, he was unconvinced at first. "I used to hate them, but it's one of those things you have to invest the time and energy in. If it was taken away from me tomorrow it would be a catastrophe."

Carole Hemphrey-Ellis, a key stage 1 teacher at the 96-pupil Thurlestone All Saints primary school in Kingsbridge, south Devon, makes an unlikely nethead. In her 30th year of teaching and her 16th at Thurlestone, Mrs Hemphrey-Ellis loves her RM laptop, and is a self-confessed Internet addict. "The possibilities are endless," she says. "I've used websites for downloading worksheets and information, and for getting in touch with other people across Europe."

She uses support materials from the DfEE's standards site, the BBC's website, and the Becta site. Before Christmas she was busy finding material on Santa Claus. "I found a North Pole site and a Santa site. There were puzzles, stories and pictures you could download."

Like Mr Moulding, she was initially wary of her computer. "You look at it and think 'Oh my God!' But the answer is to sit down and do it. We did have some training, but really it's a matter of trying the applications yourself and finding out what they will do."

Susan Scarsbrook is another experienced teacher who has been converted to ICT by her Toshiba laptop. She has been teaching in the London borough of Lambeth since 1967, becoming head of Sudbourne primary, Brixton, in 1982. She remembers when the authority first put a desktop pc in her office. "I sat there with it not switched on for eight months," she says. "I was afraid of doing something wrong. The laptop, though, gave me space to go home and do it on my terms."

Mrs Scarsbrook relies heavily on her machine for administration and management. "All the pupils are on a spreadsheet," she says. "We track their achievement all through the primary years - baseline assessment, all the assessments up to tests at the end of key stage 2. It's helped us to set targets and monitor progress across classes."

Again, portability is crucial. "It goes back and forth every day without fail. I have a printer at home and one at school." Like others, she finds she does more work rather than less. "I can't say I've saved time. I do more things. You keep thinking you can perfect something."

John McCormack, for 20 years head of St Mary's 9-13 middle school in Puddletown, Dorset, claims it's easy to get too carried away. "It's like a big boy's toy," he says, "and the danger is that you do things you would normally pass to the office." But he finds his Notino invaluable when it comes to preparing the school budget. "You can play around with 'what if' scenarios, and it saves a lot of time."

Saving time is a priority for Leslie Ward, a teacher for 25 years and currently special educational needs co-ordinator at the 1,200-pupil Easingwold school in north Yorkshire. A Senco has to monitor the progress of all the pupils on the SEN register; any new information must be recorded and acted upon as quickly as possible. "Last Friday I had nine reviews to write up, and I was able to take the job home," says Mr Ward. "You could do many of these things on any computer, but there isn't enough time in the school day. I take it home and print it there."

So how was all this done before he had his laptop. "Frankly," he says, "it wasn't. Or it was done on a piece of paper and shoved in the pupil's file, and you told the people about it when you saw them. For me, the biggest help is being able to access pupil records on the spot." This information is mostly for teacher use, but, he says, "it's good to sit in the classroom and talk to a child and spin the computer round to display the record".

Teachers at the Hollyfield school in Surbiton, Surrey, use Bromcom mini laptops to take the register at the start of every lesson. "It will immediately tell you if a pupil has truanted, because you can read the previous lesson's attendance," says deputy head David Forward.

For the information to be useful, the completed register has to go quickly to a central point where it is accessible to administrators and senior staff. Hollyfield's laptops are linked by radio to a host pc in the school office which also allows the laptops to be used for internal messages.

Mr Forward says: "We can send messages to all the staff, or to groups or individuals. We can also get messages to pupils - if someone's forgotten their dinner money and the parent has brought it in, for example. The message goes automatically to the teacher who has the pupil at that time. If it's 'I can't pick you up tonight', then it's important, and the system saves a lot of time and stress."

The Bromcom system can also be used for assessment; teachers enter grades on their laptops and these are sent to the database in the main computer. Mr Forward says it is important that the system is used throughout the school. "It enhances the ICT ethos of the school for pupils to see every teacher using the computer in every lesson."

In addition to the schools involved in the Becta Portables for Teachers scheme, many others have bought machines independently. Assuming that many teachers own their own laptops, the number of teachers using laptops at work may be as high as 16,000 (4 per cent of the 400,000-strong teacher workforce) rising to 21,000 this spring when staff in Scotland receive their subsidies. Although many are being used for work that could just as easily be done on a desktop machine, in many schools space is limited, and teachers like being able to work at a small desk or on their laps. They also like being able to take their work home. (The Becta project uncovered teachers who were taking desktop machines home for the weekend, some even humping them around the London Underground.) Perhaps the ultimate endorsement is that some teachers are reported to have torn up job applications because they couldn't bear to be parted from their laptops. Teachers in the Portables for Teachers scheme had to leave their machines behind if they changed jobs, and Becta says more than one decided to stay put when they realised they would lose their precious workmates. If the Government heeds The TES campaign there will be no such brake on teacher mobility.


The scheme will be launched in England at the BETT technology exhibition in London next Wednesday (January 12) by Michael Wills, the learning and technology minister. It has been running in Scotland since December.

The aim, according to Becta, is "to raise teachers' confidence and competence in ICT, contributing to a raising of standards across all subjects and to improved school administration and management".

To qualify for a "substantial" discount (at least pound;200) on laptops, teachers must: * Buy a computer approved by Becta

* Provide a receipt and a letter from their headteacher confirming their eligibility

* Register for or have completed a lottery-funded training course on using computers in the classroom

How laptops change your life

At home

* E-mail: it's much easier than writing snail mail (letters) and great for keeping in touch

* The Web: from your local newspaper to your favourite football club, almost every organisation now has a website

* Shopping: no time? Almost anything can now be found on-line, from groceries to gumboots

* Chat: there are thousands of chat rooms where you can discuss specific topics or have more wide-ranging discussions with people from all over the world

* Family kudos: whenever you're not using it, your partner or children are sure to be on it

At work

* Save time: going electronic means you can record marks and work things out like averages much more quickly (see for help)

* Worksheets: preparing these and other documents on a computer makes it easy to update them.

* Research: vast amounts of material for the classroom are available on sites such as the Virtual Teachers Centre (

* E-mail: communicating with colleagues and management by e-mail does away with piles of memos

* Stay ahead: make yourself familiar with a computer and avoid being shamed by your pupils

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