A support group has stepped in to help south London schools become beacons of excellence in technology. Hugh John reports.
Down in south west London, something digital stirs. AZTEC, the area's training and enterprise council, and Roehampton Institute are running a pound;13 million model for the National Grid for Learning. The five-year project, called the Learning Circuit, is aimed at schools' ICT planning, teacher training and hardware and software provision across the national curriculum.
AZTEC is part of a nationwide network of training councils. Established in 1991, it is a private company contracted to deliver certain services to government. Its board consists of local community representatives. The chief executive, Ian Parkes, fears the creation of an "information underclass" in Britain. Accordingly, partnerships with Kingston University and Roehampton Institute have spawned two companies: Point Digital to help local firms explore ICT; and the Learning Circuit to develop ICT in schools and colleges.
The executive director, Peter Maher, likens the Learning Circuit to the local model advocated in the Stevenson report on ICT that underpins government thinking. It makes sense. The pace of technological development means that mistakes nationally - and there are sure to be some - could be very costly. Better to start small and scale up.
"The original concept was to identify schools which could be called beacons of excellenceI so that later on, other schools, as they come on board, have got reference points," says Maher. The medium-term plan is to take the other 217 local schools through the same process.
The early stages were not without problems. At the end of the first year, one of the eight schools withdrew. The original selection process also proved divisive for schools and local authorities. The solution was simple: Peter Maher let it be known that the Learning Circuit would work with anyone. The long-term plan is to keep the project afloat when the guaranteed backing ends in 2002.
AZTEC's domain extends from inner-city Battersea to leafy Esher, even to Jersey. Maher is in no doubt that it's "the ability to succeed with difficult schools in difficult areas, as much as anything, that demonstrates whether or not the strategy works". Judging from the schools I visited, it certainly does.
Veronica Bradbury, headteacher of Allfarthing Primary, is the sort of solid, inspirational head whom ICT proselyters should wheel out at the first sign of resistance. Bradbury regards ICT as a facility which, if used sensibly, complements and enhances traditional teaching skills. "It's something that supports. Definitely. We still have handwriting lessons. You have to keep a good balanceI I want the children to go as far as their potential might take them. Now if computers help in that - and I think they do - then that's fine. If not, I wouldn't use them."
Allfarthing has 16 modern computers in a dedicated suite and two in each classroom. The suite also has a projector hooked up to one of the computers for class teaching. Children are learning basic word-processing techniques such as cut-and-paste by the age of nine. The school also runs an informal IT clinic for staff in the evening. Teachers indicate areas in which they would like extra tuition - digital cameras, scanners, software, for instance - and this is provided by an ICT co-ordinator.
At Wimbledon Park First School, the children were making an interactive multimedia book of a recent school journey. It has a video-conferencing facility which Giovanna, aged eight, was only too keen to talk about. "We've been communicating with a school in Pisa and we've asked them about the Leaning Tower 'cos that's where the Leaning Tower is, and also because we've got an Italian teacher and she helps out with the Italian words."
Stuart Callaway, ICT co-ordinator at Hillcross Middle School, reports a startling turnaround in attitudes. Where formerly he was trying to raise colleagues' awareness of and interest in ICT, he is now being constantly asked about new software and applications.
A rewarding project is being set up between Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital and Wimbledon Park, where pupils take part in video-conferences with young patients and, hopefully, give them support and companionship.
"Something that supports" is a succinct definition of the role of ICT in education. It's tempting to extend the metaphor to the work the Learning Circuit is doing with schools and colleges and beyond that in the wider community. Let's hope it succeeds.