Having the money for high-tech classrooms is one thing - using computers creatively is quite another. Dorothy Walker talks to David Broadfield and Ann Aston about a sea-change in their working methods
I know we have a reputation for being a high-tech school," says David Broadfield. "But our focus is always on the child, never the computer."
Broadfield is head of Robin Hood Junior and Infants School in Birmingham, and his school is certainly well equipped: pupils have their own cinema and video production studio, and electronic whiteboard facilities in every class. But the school is best known for the trail blazed by Broadfield and his deputy, Ann Aston, in applying technology in new and highly effective ways.
They have worked as a team since the school opened in 1989, and it was in that first exciting year that their own pupils helped them discover the power of ICT.
Broadfield says: "As a new school, we aimed to educate for the needs of the 21st century, and ICT was obviously going to play a part. But neither of us, nor any of the staff had any understanding of it. We had computers in the classroom because they were the latest thing, but we had no appreciation of what they could do for our children."
The school made its debut with 70 pupils, many of them disaffected youngsters whom neighbouring schools had persuaded to make a fresh start at Robin Hood. None had reading ages above their chronological age and the only thing that captured their imagination turned out to be the computer.
"Only at the computer would they sit still," says Broadfield. "They all felt they had failed at their previous schooling, but they showed interest in the machines. Ann was teaching the juniors as well as deputising and, when she realised what was happening, she vowed to start building on it."
Aston says: "The issue was how we gave these children a different view of themselves, not as failures but as successful learners. We put a lot of strategies in place, but the key was that ICT proved to be a motivator, without any real effort on our part. We ourselves were motivated to learn about ICT because of the effect on the children."
When new software arrived, she recalls, teachers and pupils would sit down together to learn about it. "For the first time, they saw us as learners, and began to understand that we went through the same processes as they did. And when the children were able to teach us things, it gave them a real buzz."
A major breakthrough came in 1991 with the opening of a computer room. As it could hold only six pupils at a time, they had to be trusted to work without constant supervision. Aston says: "It showed we had high expectations of their attitude and standards of work. Many stopped seeing themselves as 'baddies' and began walking tall." <> As the school grew, Aston and Broadfield encouraged new teachers to give children opportunities to work independently, and began teaching pupils how to collaborate effectively. Aston says: "The computer is brilliant for collaborative work, but unless children have allied teamwork skills - negotiating, making decisions, sharing ideas - it all falls down. They do not develop the ability to work in a group simply by osmosis."
A peer-tutoring scheme was also introduced, with a badge awarded to encourage youngsters to help fellow pupils, be they close friends or perceived rivals.
In 1995, the school was given 30 networked computers by Apricot - "a massive boost" - and also became one of the first in the UK to have its own website. That same year, the children were introduced to videoconferencing, which made a major contribution to helping develop the curriculum. The first project focused on art, with the children collaborating with an artist over a live video link. Not only did they produce high-quality work, but their teachers were astonished by the high level of debate that developed on the subject of art. The school has since built considerable expertise in both art and the application of video-conferencing.
"Some of our most successful results have been unexpected," says Aston. "If you plan a project and then stick rigidly to the tramlines, sometimes you miss golden opportunities that could produce a wonderful return."
The school's new cinema and video production studio, opened last year by David Puttnam, is a good case in point. Broadfield says: "Lord Puttnam saw a lot of the children's video and animation work - and it was work that began purely by chance. The children began to notice how almost every website had animation or video - and they asked us how to do animations themselves."
Today electronic whiteboarding facilities encourage collaboration in and beyond the classroom, with children often working together on the Web or giving presentations to fellow pupils. Since 1995, all the school's technology has been funded from its own budget. But Aston believes funds are not the only key to success.
"I wish the powers-that-be would take the risk of allowing some schools to turn learning on its head. Today's model of education, with its emphasis on content, is still stuck in the past. We need a new model that is about learning experiences," she says.
"The last 12 years have taught me that ICT enables a child to develop in many different ways, but as a teacher, you still have to plan carefully and pull everything together.
"It is not enough to put aside money for high levels of technology. We must trust creative teachers to run with ideas and really begin to look at what children need."