The rot has apparently been stopped in Docklands. The first year's results of the Docklands Learning Acceleration project - described by Professor David Reynolds in The TES (January 31) as "phenomenal" - suggest that computer-assisted learning can bring real improvements in literacy standards in inner city areas. The reading scores of the children involved (600 of last year's Year 3, aged seven to eight), which were already beginning to drop below the national average, have ceased to decline.
So how have computers done it when other interventionist policies have made little impact? Ray Barker, the project co-ordinator, insists that computers are only part of the story. "Like any teaching resource, a computer is only as good as the teacher in charge of it. This project isn't about machines, it's about people. You're wasting your time buying a load of computers unless you know exactly what you want to do with them. You might as well buy several thousand pounds' worth of colouring books."
The project is changing people's perceptions and expectations - using the power of new technology to convince inner city children, who would normally have toppled into a downward spiral of low-attainment, that they can succeed.
So far - thanks to the commitment of the three-strong project team and the teachers in the 15 schools concerned - they have been remarkably successful. The project is funded by the London Docklands Development Corporatio n, set up in the 1960s to regenerate a dying area. The old London docks round the Isle of Dogs were destroyed by containerisation: jobs gone, hope gone. Over 30 years, the LDDC brought new business and buildings to the area, but didn't make much difference to local families trapped in the cycle of unemployment and poverty, and increasingly losing faith in the power and uses of literacy. Reading standards in Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Newham - the three boroughs which the Docklands area straddles - were notoriously low.
The LDDC winds up in 1998. In a last-ditch attempt to reverse educational trends in the area for which it's been economically responsible, it contacted the National Literacy Association, promising to fund a project. The NLA's suggestion was that it provide Year 3 children with two types of computer: hand-held Pocket books for use in school and at home, and powerful multimedia computers, delivering individualised learning skills tuition (known as ILS programs) for 20 minutes a day. It was a brave suggestion as literacy software, especially ILS, is viewed with suspicion by many reading specialists. But computers are something new, something with which the parents and children of Docklands have not had a chance to become disillusioned. In them the NLA saw the possibility of breaking the cycle of poor literacy and poor prospects.
From the beginning it was clear that a lot would depend on the project team. In an area like Docklands there is an understandable tendency to sigh "not another project, " so the responsibility for engendering and maintaining enthusiasm was no small one. Fortunately, Ray Barker is one of nature's enthusiasts and with a background in educational publishing and multimedia, and a talent for organisation, he was well-placed to get the project off the ground. He convinced the NLA of the need for two more specialists: a teacher and a troubleshooter - the teacher to help integrate IT resources into classroom practice, the technical expert to swoop into schools and iron out any practical problems.
In Glenn Franklin he's found the perfect teacher. A Docklands girl herself, she knows the area. Her grandfather was a docker - she remembers the silencing of the ship's hooters, the steady deterioration of the docks.
She now lives in a tower block beside one of the project schools, where last winter the Canary Wharf bomb blew out her windows. Although most of her teaching career (including a deputy headship and Reading Recovery specialisa tion) has been in other parts of London, this is very much Glenn's patch, and she's excited about helping teachers and parents bring the power of technology to tackle the "reading blight" that's afflicted their children.
James Laniyon, the young computing engineer who took on the trouble-shooting role, is another lucky find. "He was supposed just to go in and fix the computers," says Ray Barker. "But he's brilliant with the kids. He soon found himself being asked to take class lessons on computing - and because he's got no preconceptions, his expectation was that the children would be able to do anything he suggested. So they did."
The children's enthusiasm has been critical. With only two years to prove itself, the project needed a kickstart which only they could provide. The team trained them, as well as the teachers, in how to use the computers and encouraged them to become the "experts". This generated huge excitement about the technology which, in its turn, sparked parental interest. "It was wonderful," recalls Glenn Franklin. "People said 'Parents don't come to meetings round here. You'll be lucky if you get two.' Then we would walk into the school hall and it would be full!"
The children's enthusiasm helped in many other ways. If the Pocket books were to go home, for instance, they'd need adult "minders" on the way to and from school to prevent their being stolen. Parents who had never previously crossed the school gate were bullied by their children into coming to pick them up, which opened up further opportunities for home-school liaison. And the fledgling computer-experts were able to teach their parents how to use the machines, boosting their own self-esteem while spreading the word and the computer-bug.
But teacher commitment was vital too. Every school is different, and the team was determined that each should organise its use of the computers according to its needs. But there is common agreement that computer-assisted learning is pointless unless it supports the way classes work the rest of the time. This is the major on-going challenge for Ray and Glenn. As Ray puts it: "We know what the software can do, we know what schools are like, we know what teachers can do - so what we have to find out is: how can we integrate it all?"
Helped by teachers in the project, they developed linking activities like worksheets and games; the schools themselves have developed more. The LDDC has also funded other activities - author visits, drama groups - to capitalise on children's burgeoning interest in reading and writing.
So far then, hearts and minds have been won and the first year's test results have justified the LDDC's investment and the NLA's faith in the power of technology to make a difference. But changing a culture isn't easy.
Money and resources are a good starting point but it's how you use them that counts, and the fact that the Docklands computers have been more effective than a massive consignment of colouring books is down to the enthusiasm, understanding and flair of the project team and the teachers in the schools.
That human commitment to improving the lives of some of the country's least-advantaged children will be needed even more when the initial glamour of a new sort of learning resource starts to wear off. Computer-assisted learning helps, but teacher-assisted learning is what the Docklands Project is really all about.