Frustration at not being able to make a difference was the key to Marian Brooks' ICT revelation. Now she's set up a college network which is both time and user-friendly, as Dorothy Walker reports.
Marian Brooks admits that when she took up teaching, she set herself an ambitious goal: "I wanted to make a difference to the way life was for children in the classroom." Today her students also set themselves high targets and, like Brooks, are achieving them with the help of ICT.
She is head of Cranford Community College, a language college in west London, where over 80 per cent of its students come from homes where English is not the first language. Yet Brooks has turned what has traditionally been considered a problem into an educational opportunity, and is blazing a remarkable trail. She runs a school which prizes cultural differences, employing ICT to forge worldwide links and to boost self-esteem and enthusiasm for learning. The approach is certainly working, and test results are now above the national average - an achievement which even the normally modest Brooks describes as "colossal".
Her first awakening to the power of ICT came back in 1985, when she realised that her dream of "making a difference" was in jeopardy, because she was spending so much time on administrative paperwork. As deputy head at Langley Wood School in Berkshire, she was devoting between 70 and 80 per cent of her time to handwriting everything from staff cover sheets to timetables. "All my conversations were about obtaining data from people - not about teaching and learning. I became hugely frustrated."
Never having used ICT, she consulted a colleague, who came up with an administrative software package that had been written by schools in Henley. As a result of automation, her administration time plummeted to only 10 per cent. Brooks was "liberated", and began to work with other schools in the county to implement systems that would improve management.
By the time she took up the deputy headship at Bushey Meads school in neighbouring Hertfordshire, three years later, she was convinced that ICT had the potential to transform the classroom experience for everyone. "I had found it such a relief in my job, and if you extended the principle to some of the things that children did, like drafting and re-drafting, then ICT enabled them to focus on the learning rather than the repetitive tasks."
She introduced a computer network that linked the whole school, so that for the first time teachers could have instant access to a child's learning history, previously unrecorded or hidden away in mark books. "If you don't have a school-wide network, you have to pass pieces of paper around, and there is never a right time for that - people file the paper away rather than read it."
She then set about exploring how ICT could be employed in the classroom, laying the foundations for her work at Cranford. Then, as now, her focus was on increasing pupils' awareness of what they could achieve. She says:
"I have a passion for making it possible for people to do what they want to do. The key is to say to youngsters: 'You can do it!' and creating a culture in which they can."
She believes that one of the main strengths of ICT is in helping everyone take pride in the work they produce. "All too often in teaching we criticise the presentation of a piece of work, and we never get down to the real content. ICT enables people to produce work that looks incredibly good. Even if the content isn't too hot, you are able to applaud the presentation, and then address what is in it.
"It also enables children to go back and put things right. A handwritten draft is very difficult to revise, but if it is on a system, you can sit and discuss how to improve it, and collaborate on constructive revision.
"Education is totally artificial. In the working world, you don't produce the finished article first time, every time. If you move to a collaborative model, you are moving towards learning with each other, which is a more adult approach."
Collaborative learning is critical at Cranford, where Brooks arrived in 1995, and where everyone is encouraged to value their differing skills and achievements, increasingly with the aid of the internet. "ICT doesn't give a monkey's what language you speak," she says. "The internet is not written in standard English, so the fact that you're not fluent in English becomes less of an issue."
The Net helps to emphasise the global nature of education, by supporting international partnerships which the school has forged in every area of the curriculum. With the help of email, students work on physics with students in Sweden, study geography with their counterparts in Sardinia, or swap opinions on English Literature with schoolfriends in Denmark.
Many of Brooks' overseas contacts have been made through membership of The Global Educator Team, a group of educators which collaborates in using ICT to strengthen cross-cultural links.
In constant touch via email discussions and web-based conferences, the like-minded team comes up with projects "that all teachers can get hold of and make real". Typically, when Brooks threw her energy into the latest spin-off from her electronic brainstorming - a mentorship program for teachers in the South African townships of Johannesburg - she was determined that her pupils would benefit too. Now the Cranford teenagers have set up a limited company to import artwork from women's co-operatives in the townships, and they are currently negotiating with a major hotel chain to set up sales outlets in this country.
The enterprising students were the focus of attention earlier this year, when the Chinese Minister for Education visited the school to learn how ICT could be employed to create independent learners. Brook says: "That idea is at the heart of everything I do. The teacher is not the person who delivers everything, but the person who says: 'This is how you might do it, let's talk about it.' "We can't go on modelling the educational system on what we came through, as the world is going to be very different for young people in future. And I believe that ICT can make a huge difference to the way that children engage with their own learning."