Two hundred years after the industrial revolution, Telford is again leading change - this time for school technology. Chris Johnston reports
Thomas Telford School is different to most other comprehensives in Britain. It is a point Kevin Satchwell, the headteacher, wants to make sure he gets across - not to emphasise that his school is special, but to acknowledge that much of what it does would be difficult to replicate elsewhere.
That is not to say others cannot learn from what this city technology college in Telford, Shropshire - home of Ironbridge and dubbed the Silicon Valley of the 18th century - is doing. The school is one of the most forward-thinking in Britain, both in the way it uses information technology in teaching and learning and in its educational philosophy.
Judging by the fact that 97 per cent of Thomas Telford's 1,140 pupils last year achieved five or more GCSEs with A-to-C grades - making it the highest achieving comprehensive in the country - its approach must be working.
Thomas Telford opened in 1991 in a purpose-built structure designed around the curriculum statement, which alone gives it a head start over other schools forced to make do in inappropriate accommodation. During the past eight years, the school has developed a style of learning that embraces imaginative use of technology as well as more traditional methods, with the aim of fostering independence and maturity in its students.
Satchwell is not an IT evangelist. He regards it as being beneficial only if it allows a school to do something that would otherwise be impossible - such as offer a foreign language via distance learning - and if it helps to raise standards. Nevertheless, it is clear that IT is the key to Thomas Telford's aim of giving dependent learners the skills to become independent learners.
"What it enables the youngster to do is retrieve information quickly, resource all sorts of knowledge and information providers that otherwise wouldn't be accessible, and enables teachers to combine a whole range of media that stimulates the learner," says Satchwell.
IT now plays an even more significant role in the way learning is delivered at the school with the introduction last year of a "Hypertext curriculum". Each July, the entire curriculum for the following year is put on the internal network and can be accessed by students at school as well as at home. This, the head explains, allows them to plan, organise and get support if they need it, and lay the foundations for becoming lifelong learners.
However, students are not tethered to a computer all day. "I like to see a very balanced blend of everything from didactic teaching right the way through to appropriate use and application of IT packages," Satchwell says.
When the school opened, every student was given a laptop, but he says that this is no longer appropriate as 70 per cent have a computer at home. The ratio of terminals to students has been reduced from 1:3 to 1:6 because innovations such as electronic whiteboards have eliminated the need for individual machines in many classes. "What we're trying to do is put modern technologies alongside the most successful teaching methodologies and take advantage of both."
The school also makes extensive use of IT in fast-developing areas such as computer-aided design and manufacture, but the head believes it makes a vital contribution to improving pupil performance by making it possible to closely monitor the progress of every pupil. Satchwell can call up the file of any student on his terminal and spends about one third of the time in weekly staff meetings discussing individual pupils. A rapid response to potential problems can then be made.
Even more effective, in his view, is the policy of reporting student progress to parents 10 times a year. As well as improving performance, it also reduces the burden on teachers by reducing the need for parents' evenings.
T ISAtribute to the extent that IT has been integrated into the learning process at Thomas Telford that every key stage 4 student takes a GNVQ in IT, even though it is not taught as a formal subject. Satchwell says that as well as giving pupils the skills now needed in many jobs, it also gives them another two GCSEs. A very desirable side-effect was boosting the school's top-grade GCSE pass rate by 12 percentage points over the 1997 score to 97 per cent.
This success was achieved without selection - CTCs must ensure their intake reflects the cross-section of ability in their catchment area. One in five students is eligible for free school meals and 152 have special needs. As well as other factors, the school's 35-hour teaching week - 10 hours longer than the national average - makes a considerable impact.
Walking around Thomas Telford, it is almost possible to forget you are in a school, particularly as the sixth-formers wear business dress, reflecting the close links with business, many of which are high-tech companies such as NEC and Epson. The students seem genuinely pleased to be there and discipline is not a problem, which seems to indicate that the ethos of independent learning works.
As public funds have been invested in making his school a testbed for the way IT can be better used in education, Satchwell believes it is Thomas Telford's responsibility to work with other schools interested in following a similar path. "We have to try to win the resources for other schools and work together with them so that they don't make the same mistakes we made. We made loads, but we moved quickly to put them right, so what we have is more or less a winning formula. People can pick and mix to get the right formula for their school."
Thomas Telford School