Seeds for a culture shift

8th November 1996 at 00:00
The catch-phrase "Apple Classroom of Tomorrow" has a misleading ring of high-tech equipment. A visit to St Andrew's High School, Kirkcaldy, which is Europe's only secondary school ACOT site, makes you realise otherwise. ACOT is about working with teachers to change classroom culture; computers in large numbers and the design of classrooms to accommodate them are secondary.

ACOT teachers were selected internally by competitive interview: 14 teachers applied for four posts, although no extra salary is payable. The four appointed were Gordon Mullay (German), Anne Saunders (science), Leonard Rhone (maths computing) and an English teacher who has left for promotion.

The four ACOT classrooms each provide at least one modern Mac per two pupils to all first-year classes, with access to quality peripherals (printers, network servers and, in due course, the Internet via fast ISDN2 telephone lines). Network cabling is all in place and equipment has been assembled under the supervision of technician Andy Addison.

More important, the computers' permanent presence also gives the teachers the opportunity not to use them unless appropriate, thus truly integrating the technology into the classroom in a way which is impossible when you have to move the class, borrow the machines or structure the lesson around a scarce resource.

The ACOT programme is allowed to mean different things in different places. Rector Tony Finn says: "ACOT is whatever we can make it." He and assistant head Jim Patterson have stressed involving the school in strategic decisions on which pupils to target. Unlike American high schools where the programme is typically aimed at a minority, St Andrew's is firmly committed to ACOT for all, initially in those four classrooms and with first-year pupils, but with dissemination up the school and to other subjects later.

In Secondary 1, the curriculum is less crowded, and pupils are fresh from the greater flexibility of the primary classroom. Team teaching and interdisciplinarity are important ingredients in ACOT, and both make extra demands on teacher time. Accordingly, it was agreed that ACOT teachers should not be recruited from among heads of departments because they already had too many commitments.

The danger is of attrition by promotion: able young teachers are bound to be ambitious and one ACOT teacher has already left to become a principal teacher of English, while others will be looking around.

The ACOT project belongs to various partners, not just to the school. Fife Council has contributed Pounds 40,000 from capital spending for the adaptation of the building, as well as staffing resources to help to release Jim Patterson from his normal duties. The plan is that ACOT teachers should be released for 20 per cent of contact time, allowing the planning and team teaching which is essential to the ACOT philosophy.

SCET (The Scottish Council for Educational Technology) is providing software and technical support and training not only to St Andrew's, but also to two ACOT primary schools in Belgium and Sweden.

Apple contributes through Apple Inc and Apple UK to what is described as a Pounds 1million project. The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department will finance evaluation via the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE).

SCRE's preparatory study chronicles the events from last October when St Andrew's beat fierce competition to win the selection, to June 19 when Fife made its commitment in the morning and the official launch took place at the school in the afternoon.

Between the two lay extensive negotiations among the partners, as well as fierce financial restructuring within Apple and the change of authority in Fife last April. The ACOT teachers spent one week in special training in May, sitting in at West High School, Columbus, Ohio. Classroom refurbishment was completed in July for the three non-practical subjects and is imminent for the science lab.

St Andrew's, a socially mixed Roman Catholic comprehensive serving the whole of eastern Fife, was chosen because of its strengths in curriculum and management.

It gained the Schools Curriculum Award in 1992; it was the only Scottish school to receive the Paul Hamlyn curriculum award in 1993 and had a favourable inspection and report from Her Majesty's Inspectors in 1994.

Rector Tony Finn wrote a clear rationale for the ACOT project in 1995 and the process of negotiation with partners has been managed strongly. A further crucial element is the teacher development centre. Its co-ordinator will be responsible for "building a team who can model a student-centred, technology-enriched pedagogy for other teachers".

The American model of teacher development centre would involve one-week practicums - teachers from elsewhere working in ACOT classrooms - summer schools and follow-up. This model will need revision to suit the Scottish context. Much remains to be decided about the centre and its co-ordinator has yet to be appointed.

It would be easy to visit St Andrew's at this early stage and come away thinking nothing particularly new or different is happening.

This is beside the point. ACOT represents a bold and vulnerable attempt at an ambitious and worthwhile goal - not merely to change the culture in St Andrew's and other Fife secondary schools, but also to reach out to Scottish schools and perhaps even to affect education in general.

* Conference: Tony Finn and staff from St Andrew's High School will illustrate how the project will develop within the Scottish curriculum, Thursday 10. 30am

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