An independent school is putting all its pupils on a fast track to typing success. Elaine Carlton reports.
Driving along a country road on a hot summer's day, steep hills are on either side and the sun burns brightly in a deep blue sky. A dazzling red sports car suddenly appears in your rear-view mirror. Increasing your speed, you shake it off at first, but soon the car comes racing past on the outside, while the dozens of dead flies splattered against your windscreen partially obscure your view.
This is just one of the games dreamed up by computer experts to help people learn to type. It is being used by 13 to 18-year-old pupils at Ardingly College, an independent mixed school in West Sussex.
The game, part of the Mavis Beacon typing programme, uses the sports car to measure typing speed - you get overtaken if you type too slowly - while the splattered flies indicate the number of errors. The programme includes lessons on where to put your fingers and practice drills for particular letters and combinations of letters.
All pupils spend 10 minutes at the beginning of computer less-ons, once a week, practising their typing. The move was introduced three years ago by headteacher James Flecker, when the school opened its new computer suite.
"Typing is an essential life skill and all schools should be doing it, " he says. "Universities and businesses expect undergraduates and employees to be 10-finger typists not two-finger ones these days."
Mr Flecker writes to the families of all new children at the school - which takes day pupils and boarders - to tell them to start practising their typing before the start of term. So convinced was he of the importance of learning to type, that he started himself at the age of 55.
"If my young ones had to learn, then so should I," he says, quickly admitting his own performance is fast but fairly inaccurate.
Pupils are expected to reach 15 words a minute by the end of the first term, and to hit 30 by the end of the summer. Tests are carried out three times a term to check on their progress. Those in the senior school who fail to reach the required speeds are "encouraged" to practise on their free activity afternoon each week.
Not that learning this way is wholly straightforward. It becomes difficult to improve after hitting 30wpm, as head of information technology Mike Dooley concedes. He joined the Pounds 3,000-a-term school two years ago, when the typing drive was in full swing. "Without constant and regular practice it's hard to boost your speed and there is also the motivation aspect," he says. "It gets boring."
The pupils are the first to agree on that. They have all had enough of the burning sun and dazzling sports car, but they recognise the advantage of learning to type.
"It's useful. It looks so much neater when you present your work," says 14-year-old Helen Forbes. "When you're writing, you sit there for ages trying to be careful. But if you get one thing wrong it's ruined."
Alex Bulens, 14, typed with two fingers before she started at Ardingly earlier this year. She says: "At my old school we concentrated on charts and graphs but we need to be able to type as we're now doing more and more work on computers. I've improved drastically since I started here."
According to Mr Flecker, typing is most useful for pupils with dyslexia. "It's superb. Dyslexics might write at only 10 words a minute, whereas they seem to be very quick at typing."
Pupils in the junior school also spend 10 minutes a week practising. Here however they use a simpler programme produced by computer game giant Nintendo, using the Super Mario character. Mario wants to jump over turtles blocking his path. Each turtle has a letter on its belly. To make Mario leap over it, pupils must press the correct key.
Mr Dooley says: "When I started at Ardingly I was surprised at the emphasis on typing. Here it is an integral part of IT education. It's not seen as something special."
He believes other schools could find it difficult to fit typing into the curriculum. "If computing is a single period, typing practice will be at the expense of learning about spreadsheets or databases, but because we have a double period, there is plenty of time."
Despite his initial surprise, Mr Dooley soon recognised the value of typing, particularly in writing up project work. But he is not convinced typing will always be as important as it is today. "Now we can talk to computers, that will become the quickest and easiest way for students to do their work. Typing skills will lose their importance," he says.
Mr Flecker retains his enthusiasm none the less. He has set up a lap-top programme within the school, recommending to parents that each family buys a Pounds 2,000 machine. He argues that typing will become an even more crucial skill in the years ahead.
He says: "When it comes to taking words and diagrams down from the board, touch-typing is very efficient. Within five years people in the UK will be using lap-tops the way we currently use exercise books."