Primary schools are often the poor relations when it somes to computers, but Nicola Jones visits two right at the cutting edge
You can't miss the computers at Roselands JMI school in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Just inside the entrance, animated groups of children use a range of CD-Roms to research classroom topics. Staff are committed and enthusiastic about the use of information technology, making it an intregal part of curriculum planning. Working from cards prepared by the teachers to keep them on task, children as young as six load the CD-Roms to find information. All the juniors in the school have their own floppy discs to store their work.
Jane Carson, headteacher and IT co-ordinator, has been enthusiastic about the use of computers for some time. She was a teacher at the school when it bought its first computer, and over the past 10 years has worked to incorporate the use of IT into every aspect of the curriculum. The school now has two computers to every classroom, as well as four multimedia PCs used by all pupils. Each classroom has a colour printer, allowing children to get a print-out of their work quickly.
A recent inspection report describes Roselands as operating at the "leading edge of technology" - and indeed it is. But it has not thrown out its old equipment. "We are committed to keeping up with the latest developments, " says Ms Carson. "But older computers can be perfectly adequate for young children for word processing and simple data handling."
The children use computers regularly, in pairs with a "computer partner". By the time they reach the upper juniors, all can word process and combine their words with graphics, using their skills to develop simple presentations. Children use Clip and Datafile software for data-handling in the lower school, then move on to Starting Grid, a simplified form of Excel. Logo is used throughout the school and Year 6 pupils design patterns with it, which are then developed from polyprint and used to cover topic folders.
The multimedia PCs are kept in a central area, where children can discuss the CD-Roms and listen to the multimedia without disturbing others. Headphones aren't used as this discourages discussion. A small group of boys I talk to are busy developing a multimedia presentation using HyperStudio, while a grandparent of one of the children at the school helps a group of Year 5 girls research the social history of ancient Greece on the World Wide Web.
The most striking thing about watching the children work at Roselands is their level of IT competence. Keyboard skills aren't a problem by the time children reach the upper juniors and they have no trouble saving and retrieving their work. They handle CD-Roms with care and know how to look after their own discs.
Girls are every bit as enthusiastic and happy with the technology as boys and the computers are well integrated as a learning tool, rather than a distraction.
Ms Carson feels that it is important to standardise on one kind of computer so that children are able to take their discs from one to another without any extra steps. Any equipment that goes wrong is repaired promptly.
Further north, Cheslyn Hay primary school in Walsall is plugging into the World Wide Web through BT's CampusWorld service to support topic work. The school has teamed up with a French school, cole Martin Nadaud in Bourganeuf, near Limoges, to exchange information and sound and picture files across the Internet via e-mail. Year 5 children are learning basic French greetings from Year 3 children in France and get great pleasure from hearing the French children speak when they click on their picture. They send e-mail and pictures in return and are surprised at how good the children's English is.
The school is keen to collaborate with on-line projects but headteacher Martin Tibbetts says: "It is important to choose e-mail partner schools carefully. The pupils need to have their e-mail returned quickly and it can be disappointing if an e-mail partner drops out once the children have become involved."
Meanwhile, budding journalists in Year 5 have been working on a project to create a national newspaper, using UK News, an on-line news service provided through CampusWorld, to provide the copy and making up the front page with Microsoft's Publisher desktop publishing software.
Last year Cheslyn Hay was given a grant under the Government's IT in English initiative to stage a simulation based on the Sea Empress oil pollution disaster at Milford Haven. Five schools around the country were involved, including schools from Bristol and Wales, with outside bodies such as the Oil Bird Rescue Centre and the Milford and West Wales Mercury providing real answers to children's questions.
Each school took a different role, such as the crew of the Sea Empress or the Port Authority, and by mid-morning the children were completely immersed in their simulated roles. The five schools communicated in role via phone, fax and e-mail, as well as contacting outside agencies for information and clarification.
The work from this project was presented at the BETT exhibition in January as a model for other schools. A further initiative which the school is planning is a telecottage at the school for the local community with four multimedia machines, although funding is still being sought.
With careful planning and management, computers can enhance children's learning at every level. Many primary schools are rising to meet the challenge with enthusiasm and imagination.