A Cumbrian school is using European money to help ensure IT support for its teachers and local parents too.
It is a long way even as the crow flies from Brussels to Orgill County Primary School in Cumbria. It is a journey worth making, because the school is remarkable for a number of things. Its main claim to fame is that it has a very high computer to pupil ratio. It has also devised, in conjunction with the local university and the European Union, a scheme for involving parents in the life of the school that seems to benefit the whole community.
When you have as many computers as Orgill, one per child, you have a massive management problem as well as an enviable resource. Owen Lynch, the headteacher, makes the point that too much equipment coming into a school at once can be a catastrophe unless you have strategies for dealing with it. The lessons that he has learnt should be of interest because what is unusual today could be close to the norm tomorrow.
Working closely with the community is an important aspect of the school's work and it was this which identified the need to increase IT skills among local people. Orgill is in an area of high and persistent unemployment. For the past four years IT courses at the school have been based on the RSA courses: the diploma and the IT certificate. Most of the staff in the school are skilled IT practitioners and the main tutors have university IT diplomas. Students from the local community work for two evenings a week with two-and-a-half hours at each session. Most of the participants have been unemployed women. The success rate so far, measured by satisfactory completion of the course, has been 95 per cent.
Dr Mike Postle, director of in-service training at Charlotte Mason College, now part of Lancaster University, makes the point that what Orgill is doing is creating through IT "the self-reliant, self-educating community. IT can be a barrier between parents and children, here it is the opposite. Many of the people that Orgill has dealt with have not been happy in education, they won't want to go to courses in colleges. They know the primary school, they know the teachers who will be their tutors. It is the ideal place to rebuild their confidence."
The first intention was to prepare the parents, most of them women, for work. Some, once they have acquired the skills, have gone out to open their own businesses, others into commerce. Orgill school then gave the parents job opportunities in the school as resource managers, with the understanding that they would be released as soon as a job opportunity came up.
Money has been obtained from the European Social Fund from Brussels via the local university. The cash is aimed at getting people back to work. There is also Training and Enterprise Council funding which pays one resource manager Pounds 30 per week .
Jean Schwarzer and Pam Elliot are two women who have gone through the course and are now at the school. Both of them had less than satisfactory experiences during their own schooling. Pam had taken part in voluntary work and Jean had done jobs ranging from cook to waitress. Both are enthusiastic about the work in school. Pam is excited by the challenge: "We are constantly moving forwards. We are learning as much as the children." Jean, whose children are at the school, enjoys the variety of the work. "I like watching them learn, knowing that I have helped."
So what does the typical resource manager do? Pam Elliot is responsible for the Integrated Learning Systen network (see page 32) and monitors the pupils' use of the network as well as providing observation notes to teachers and recording pupil data onto a spreadsheet. She attended the residential in-service training offered to the school on the use of the network. She has taken a leading role in providing the in-service training of the teachers in the school. Jean Schwarzer manages clusters of computers (15 in each), liaises with teachers and ensures that pupils are complying with the tasks.
Owen Lynch feels strongly that schemes like this are vital. "Schools will need resource managers if we are to develop IT learning and teaching in any meaningful way." He is not entirely happy with the RSA course and makes the point that if we were training people for the needs of the school, then a different course would be required. Such courses have to be set up in a professional context.
He says: "It is good to see people who have been failed by the education system being given another chance. It is inspiring to see what they make of it. The interesting spin-offs, and maybe the most important ones, have been the increasing self-esteem of the women, their increasing independence and status within the family. One evening every week the household has to revolve around them."
He lists the skills that are necessary for the resources managers as: "IT skills, of course, and the ability to continue to learn in an independent way and to look fearlessly at new technologies and new software. They must be able to work as a team and above all they have to relate to children".
In the past 10 years the number of computers in primary schools has increased: it is now 18 pupils per micro in primary schools and 10 pupils per micro in secondary. In that same period schools have bought more video recorders, overhead projectors, video cameras and compact disc players.
The sophistication and the complexity of the technology has increased tenfold. In the next decade the pace of technological change is going to increase and yet most schools are still trying to support this intricate learning environment with teachers or classroom helpers. There has to be an acknowledgement that support for the new learning should be professional and skilled.
The effective school will recognise that teachers will help with the learning and that qualified support staff will help the teachers. As Orgill has shown, the really effective school can start to create that support from its wider community.