Mechanical motivators

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Roger Frost reports from a special school where pupils spend a fifth of lesson time at a computer.

We wouldn't appoint a teacher who did not believe in using IT," says headteacher Norman Ward. At Furze Down school in Buckinghamshire, they've put money into their policy and they've seen it pay pupils dividends - so they're insisting that new recruits should at least be prepared to learn the technology.

Furze Down is a small, hard-working special school with 150 pupils. It is not filled with equipment beyond the means of the many. It has 14 new computers bought from PC manufacturer Dell, each able to run CD-Rom software, and, filling the desk space between them, headphones, loudspeakers and several Hewlett Packard Deskjets that can print in delicious colour. It's the kind of kit that teachers might buy for themselves, own with pride and even use with pleasure.

In Norman Ward's office, a magazine rack is stuffed with bound policy papers on every aspect of school life - a sign of a capable word processor user. One of them is a paper on IT that will ring bells for everyone that has dabbled with IT: the school's first computer was a Sinclair ZX80, and it has since struggled with Spectrums, BBCs and Nimbus machines. Two other computer rooms allow many of these past-generation machines a working life today. As Furze Down has trail-blazed through the pain-inducing, often time-wasting history of IT, it has been inspired to continue by the potential for learning.

The paper shows that much has been done, including successes in music, floor robots and more - and that now the school has the technology that can motivate, help pupils learn and even talk to them. As Norman Ward says: "We've finally passed the Model-T stage with computers."

A couple of years ago, three-quarters of the staff were actively using computers: it was a short step to everyone deciding to use wordprocessors for their school reports. Now, rather than use their IT investment just for administration, they've timetabled everyone from five-year-olds to staff to spend a fifth of their lesson-time at a machine.

To see some in practice, I watched science teacher Rachel Dymott teach a goup of 15-year-olds. They are studying reproduction, and they're using the Dorling Kindersley CD-Rom Encyclopedia of Science. As this is not a network system, each machine has a copy of the program. Although each CD costs the school around Pounds 20, staff feel that a network would involve too big a jump in their knowledge.

They appreciate that there are no passwords, screen savers, or bars to stop anyone jumping in and using these machines - other than the window bars to deter thieves after their last set-up was stolen. Each wall has meticulously prepared instructions explaining how to use the programs. The pupils' own sheets explain things graphically, and the teacher runs through the protocols and the questions before them.

It's not unlike book work, says Rachel Dymott, but on a first go at the disc she'd not get far with an open approach. "These children need results to reinforce their self-esteem. It's only when they feel good that they perform better."

The children click to find their answers, and occasionally ask for help. A boy says that the word "organism" must be spelt wrong. He's told to click the mouse on it - and, unlike with a book, he hears the word through his headphones and continues.

Rachel Dymott has searched the software for useful ways to illustrate ideas. A disc called Dangerous Animals was handy for comparing the fields of vision of different animals; a program called Edison let children experiment with circuits by dragging bulbs and wires into place. She wrote these into the work scheme, and so that children always go to the computer with a purpose, each activity has a "task sheet" written up in graphic detail.

She praises the Dorling Kindersley science disc for having lots of little gems. There's a mini-film showing cell division, and another clip using wrestlers to explain forces, which she uses to prime a class before investigating friction in the lab. "You can certainly try to explain something, but here you can watch it happening and that is excellent," she says.

Even with this fine meshing of CD research and lab work, there's a need for variety. For example, the children did an old exam paper with the science CD-Rom on hand. When they did a research project on ecology, which demanded a good library, the CD-Rom collection was a saviour. If you put these children in a library with a question, they rarely find the answer - but with a "non-threatening" CD-Rom it's different, says Rachel Dymott. "You only have to see children with attention difficulties work solidly to feel it's a success. "

Furze Down's exam results are impressive, with many children entered for exams and coming away with passes. The school was praised after a recent Office for Standards in Education inspection, and has found good uses for technology. The idea of compulsion would not work everywhere, for sure, but here the mix of resources and persistence has brought tangible benefits.

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